Mengelberg conducts TCHAIKOVSKY: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1927-1930 = Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Op. 36; Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64; Waltz from Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 – Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 511 (2 CDs) TT: 2:08:36 [] ****:

Mark Obert-Thorn restores the ardent realizations of the Tchaikovsky legacy the tempestuous Mengelberg recorded for Columbia Records. 

While auditioning producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn’s latest edition of Tchaikovsky works from Willem Mengelberg (1881-1951) for the Columbia label, I recall the several sessions I enjoyed with Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg (1927-1996) at SUNY Binghamton, where he taught for the School of Advanced Technology and occasionally conducted concerts with a mixed ensemble of SUNY players and professionals. Stefan often discussed his great-uncle’s conducting style, founded as it had been in a strongly Romantic, even self-indulgent, tradition. Huge manipulations of tempo and rhythmic pulse, orchestral slides, and shifting of dynamics had been standard performance practice. My own objection to the cuts Mengelberg takes in the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony’s last movement prevented my wanting to broadcast his otherwise splendidly energetic performances, either on Columbia or Telefunken. “You know,” quipped Stefan, that “Mengelberg took those cuts as ‘authorized’ by the composer’s brother, Modeste. But the orchestra in Amsterdam had their own feelings about those elisions; and when Mengelberg would play Bach with any kind of ‘temperament’ or ‘adjustment,’ the orchestra would snidely note that the procedure had been authorized by Modeste Bach.”

The performances, nevertheless, reveal a deep level of commitment as well virtuoso execution. The Romeo and Juliet (30 May 1930) has passion and superb energy, so that the drama unfolds in a direct, propelled line from beginning to end. On the old Entre LP (RL 3039), the performance stood pride of place with many a collector.  It seems impossible to listen to the middle section of the f minor Symphony’s Andantino in modo di canzone (11-15 June 1929) without succumbing to the martial combination of menace and tragic beauty the music reveals. The Concertgebouw wind section complements the string line at every turn, rife with nuance and articulate clarity. Mengelberg prided himself on the homogeneity of sound his orchestra had achieved in fifty years’ service with them, to be rivaled only by Koussevitzky in Boston and Stokowski in Philadelphia. The ‘price’ of that discipline, admitted Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, lay in the uncompromising, authoritarian temperament of the conductor. “He would lecture the orchestra on the virtues of his porcelain collection, all the while periodically looking over the podium to be certain the men’s feet were aligned in uniform aisles.”  That tendency to iron discipline unfortunately made Mengelberg susceptible to the National Socialist program, even after the bombing of Rotterdam, which quite undid Mengelberg’s reputation in his native Holland.

Politics aside, the musical treasures in this set abound: Obert-Thorn restores the elusive 10 June 1927 Odeon recordings of the middle movements of the e minor Symphony, issued only in France.  The lovely horn work that evolves out of the Andante cantabile spreads itself in a haunted B minor and its relative major in D, and Mengelberg absorbs us in the fine work of bass instruments, complemented by some elegant lines from the oboe and clarinet. The melody itself receives full Mengelberg treatment, including huge luftpausen and string slides. Weepy as the music can become, it retains an epic dignity. Of course, uMengelberg exploits the work’s so-called “motto pattern,” the fate motive that the brass and tympani urge. The lilting Valse movement conveys an underlying melancholy as much as it dances in a panoply of colors. The wind instruments sing as luxuriously as the strings, especially in the oboe, bassoon, and flute parts.

Despite my objections to the severe cuts in the finale, the Symphony No. 5 (rec. 10 May 1928) has many wonders to relish, especially the totally responsive ensemble that seems to adjust to every rhythmic subtlety the conductor conjures. What I wanted from the last movement would be the unbroken onrush of momentum that Mengelberg achieves through the Fourth Symphony and in the first movement of the Fifth.  The cuts in the development and beginning of the coda disrupt the catapult I had gleaned from both Koussevitzky and Mravinsky, and I had expected Mengelberg to outdo them both.  Still, the execution of the opening Andante movement and its tragic, soaring pirouettes and waltzing acrobatics never cease to amaze under Mengelberg, and the Pristine XR processing guarantees a mighty experience.

The little Waltz from the Serenade in C (10 May 1928) makes a lovely encore to a Tchaikovsky set that remains “authentic” to the era in which much of this music had been conceived.

—Gary Lemco