BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”; R. STRAUSS: Don Juan – Concertgebouw Orch./ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine

by | May 28, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”; R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20 – Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 287, 62:41 [avail. in various formats from] ****:
Pristine’s Andrew Rose revitalizes two outstanding inscriptions from the potent legacy of Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), the dictatorial, often brilliant virtuoso conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, 1895-1945. The Eroica (11 November 1940) from Telefunken (P 8002) had been released–as a studio performance–as part of a complete 1940 cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. The Dutch radio broadcast of Don Juan of Richard Strauss (12 December 1940)–if I recall accurately–had been issued as a 10-inch Capitol LP some thirty-five years ago, coupled with Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture. In both cases, original issues with swish and bass-treble distortion have been removed via Pristine’s XR remastering process.
Despite the idiosyncratic excesses to which Mengelberg remained prone, the performances drip with personality, and especially a magisterial sense of orchestral discipline and homogeneity of response. The swooping phraseology, the luftpausen large enough for another sinfonia to fit through, glissandi, the elastic stretching and compression of the meters, manage to congeal into a demonically driven first movement–sans repeat–that throbs with the heroic impulse. The tonal warmth and blazing clarity of the string-woodwind lines adds to the excitement, since Mengelberg’s sense of the cosmic drama of the piece–its hard won resolution of competing forces in agogics–becomes a metaphor for internal weakness having been converted into strength. The pungent interplay of basses against the triumphant brass makes the first movement alone an incendiary document to the power of inner conviction.
The Marcia funebre must be respected for the immense dignity Mengelberg bestows on its tragic lines, the polyphony between low strings, tympani and brass pungently present. The ability to make this music breathe vocally remains a Mengelberg asset; and after the fateful horn call the basses and rising string line achieve a seamlessly dark legato against the woodwind funeral motif. The restatement of the grand theme in the basses plays like a deeply intoned Bach chorale. Portamenti in various choirs seep into the dignified singing line for the latter pages of the Adagio, but we must accept them as standard Romantic rhetoric. The edgy attacks Mengelberg elicits for the Scherzo keep us on the brink of a typhoon that soon enough hurtles forth. The Concertgebouw seems to have made a trademark of its rapidly upward accelerating scales, as though Mozart’s Mannheim Rockets had become its special province. Excellent horn work ensues for the trio section.
A whirlwind opening for the Finale relents for the pizzicato statement of the Prometheus theme that soon assumes an epic grandeur of its own. Portamenti and polyphony compete for our critical approbation in the figures that follow; but by now, we have become stylistically inured to the conceits in Mengelberg’s vision. The visceral tension of the music finds a vocal foil in the plastic phrasing and wonderful sonorities the Concertgebouw realizes in a headlong flight that still dances in often balletic splendor. Mengelberg deliberately slows down the latter pages to rebuild his tension, the string chords rising against trumpet work and woodwinds to emblazon Beethoven’s personal victory in our hearts. The coda–a herd of elephants at the gates–crashes through any acoustical barriers that may have declared this performance less frenetic than the live broadcasts of the remaining cycle.
The 1888 Don Juan symphonic poem–as consciously conceived as a showpiece as any orchestral work–finds its natural flamboyance in Mengelberg, whose brass and battery sections revel in every inflected shift of dynamics. The initial flurry of 16th notes in E Major should make us all believers in the Concertgebouw’s competence. Ferdinand Helman does the violin solo honors. As sensual as it is exciting, the work in the spirit of the poet Lenau glories in its mercurial passions, its virtual seizures of energy. The French horn, flute, clarinet and harp colloquys shine. The themes of love and adventure having been thoroughly integrated, the last climax serves as a selling point for the Mengelberg sensibility, not to mention the burgeoning career of symphonist Richard Strauss. Lenau has Don Juan die in a duel, but in the music the picaresque hero dies in a dissonant whisper.
–Gary Lemco

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