Mengelberg Conducts = TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23; Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 – Conrad Hansen, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 348, 74:29 [avail. in various formats from www.pristine classical.com] ****:
The German pianist Conrad Hansen (1906-2002) maintains his limited repute on records through two major collaborations, his 1943 Berlin Philharmonic performance of the Beethoven G Major Concerto with Wilhelm Furtwangler, and this, his 9 July 1940 reading of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Willem Mengelberg, a piece of repertory otherwise absent from the Mengelberg discography. Curiously, Hansen did address the Tchaikovsky Concerto once more on record, inscribing it for Don Gabor’s Remington label with an orchestra led by Wolfgang Sawallisch, an item that restorers might consider reviving. Collectors might be interested to know that Hansen collaborated with no less a virtuoso than Dennis Brain c. 1951 in London for Mozart’s Piano Quintet, and both Beethoven’s and Hindemith’s respective horn sonatas.
Mengelberg had been asked by the management of the Berlin Philharmonic to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of Tchaikovsky’s birth, with two concerts given July 5 and July 6, 1940. Conrad Hansen, pupil and assistant to Edwin Fischer, joined Mengelberg at the Telefunken studio for the Tuesday recording session. The performance, by the usual, which is to say, highly idiosyncratic standards for Willem Mengelberg, seems relatively prosaic. Mengelberg deliberately avoids his patented exaggerations of line and tempo for the sake of the “heroic” gesture, allowing Hansen his own leisure to mold Tchaikovsky’s symmetrical phrases that imitate the procedures of the Schumann A Minor Concerto.
The severe cut in the first movement cadenza by Hansen must be attributed to the limits of 78 rpm shellacs of the period. We can only assume that having Hansen play the cadenza intact would have necessitated another whole shellac side. While the Andantino semplice enjoys fine orchestral definition and lyrical sympathy from Hansen, the reading remains devoid of anything like passion. “Efficient” would have to serve as my epithet for the Mengelberg contribution to this effort, which has much to recommend it against the rival contemporary versions (Petri/Goehr in America; Solomon/Harty in Britain). Mengelberg manages to add some juice to the final movement Allegro con fuoco, though Hansen’s runs and fioritura rarely exceed the “apt” category, lyrical but modestly tame. In an interview given late in his career, Hansen stated that Mengelberg “was generally very happy with my playing.” Sound restoration by master engineer Mark Obert-Thorn, utilizing German Telefunken and Czech Ultraphon originals, certainly offers a warm, even luxuriant musical image, in which bravura receives less attention than artful music-making.
Many have commented upon Mengelberg’s 1940 Berlin Philharmonic Tchaikovsky Fifth as among the most willful and even vulgar realizations of Tchaikovsky’s self-appointed “fate” symphony. Yet, for the Mengelberg enthusiast, his uncanny fluctuations of the rhythmic line will generate only untold excitement and admiration for the BPO discipline, that can respond in the heroic mold to such tugs and pulls at the elastic melodies. The most egregious violation, to my thinking, is that Mengelberg, both in his Concertgebouw and Berlin readings, observes several last movement cuts that had apocryphally been approved by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste. The standing joke among Concertgebouw players became, for each and every personal adjustment Mengelberg made in Bach, that such excesses had been approved by “Modeste Bach.”
Yet, for all of our carping as to Mengelberg’s “inauthenticity” of style, his Tchaikovsky tears into our sensibilities with its vital urgency and dynamic excitement. The second movement Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza seems tailor-made for Mengelberg’s special, anachronistic romanticism, heart-throbbing and stop-on-a-dime capability to contrast tempo and affection. Mengelberg’s Valse casts considerable charm, given the string legato of the BPO; but once more, he pulls the secondary subject by slow and eccentric degrees. The woodwind work to my mind remains extraordinarily brisk and idiomatic. Precisely because Mengelberg generates such visceral, nervous passion in Tchaikovsky’s Finale I resent the elisions in the development and late pages, and I must seek Koussevitzky and Mravinsky for unadulterated alternative volcanoes. Mengelberg’s BPO timpanist makes his presence known, and the string pizzicati assert themselves in liquid fire. Fevers in the blood such as those Mengelberg could generate deserve full scope, alas.
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