BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – To Van der Sluys, soprano/Suze Luger, contralto/Louis van Tulder ,tenor/ Willem Ravelli, bass/Amsterdam Toonkunst Chorus /Royal Oratorio Society/Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Willem Mengelberg
Pristine Audio PASC 258, 68:47 [in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Pristine Audio producer and editor Andrew Rose notes that the 1940 inscription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) came from high quality acetate glass discs, rather than ordinary shellac. With Pristine’s XR remastering process, the otherwise slaked off highs and lows have been duly restored to their original intention: just listen to the piccolo at the end of the last movement! The repair process having been implemented–along with some sound elisions in the first movement–the result clamors for our delectation, a veritable fireball of a performance, presented just as the world’s most needed a message of brotherhood and human benevolence.
Given the music “excesses” in which Mengelberg indulges–remnants of a Romantic tradition that stretched bar lines and notes vales, often sliding between phrases to intensify the effects, doublings of instruments, and willful respect or neglect of repeats–the Beethoven Ninth yet manages to convey a primal power of conviction, and we must admire the homogeneity of sound the Concertgebouw evinces under Mengelberg’s wayward baton. Occasionally, Mengelberg highlights an instrument–like the trumpet–which would otherwise retain a subordinate position, as in the tenor scherzo of the last movement, that proves perverse or illuminating, according to one’s lights. What Mengelberg never imposes is boredom. The musical line sings or explodes, but it never drags. The more contrapuntal a Beethoven passage, the more ferociously Mengelberg drives both the rhythm and the textural clarity. Even in the midst of the grand musical content, Mengelberg relishes the virtuoso element, the projection of extraordinary musicianship for its own sake. The unexpected delay of the final chord in the last moment of the entire symphony proves just as startling as anything that had preceded it.
The first movement exploits Beethoven’s harmonic tensions and the constant metric shifts, the Concertgebouw strings and winds whistling through the agogic adjustments with lithe frenzy, the tympani and basses in perpetual forward motion. A vibrantly luminous reading of the Scherzo displays Mengelberg’s plastic approach to rhythm generally, the competing cross rhythms tugging at each other with magisterial abandon. A playful passion infuses the dainty interchanges between low winds and tympani, and the resultant crescendo defines the notion of “heaven-storming.” While not so intensely diaphanous as Furtwaengler’s readings of the Adagio, Mengelberg’s reading comes to Beethoven by way of Mahler, so we can feel a kinship to the equivalent movement from Mahler’s G Major Symphony. Again, the rhythmic license–infiltrated by slides and portamento–serves the perpetually evolving melodic line, the double theme and variations a grand hymn adjusted to swell into Concertgebouw’s wonderful acoustic space. The rousing last movement has conductor, soloists and chorus in dramatic volatile tension, and the effect of full chorus in counterpoint can be a shattering experience. Whatever Mengelberg’s flaws as a man and a “political” being, his musical sincerity cannot be doubted. Mengelberg revives Beethoven’s music as festival, a gorgeous feast and entertainment fit for the gods, and that phenomenon cannot grow old.
— Gary Lemco