Mengelberg in New York = HANDEL: Alcina Suite; J.S. BACH: Air from Suite No. 3; J.C. BACH: Sinfonia in B-flat Major; MOZART: Overture to Die Zauberfloete; BEETHOVEN: Egmont Ov.; MENDELSSOHN: Athalie: War March of the Priests; MEYERBEER: Le Prophete: Coronation March; WAGNER: Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel Ov.; SAINT-SAENS: Le Rouet d’Omphale – Philharmonic-Sym. of NY/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio

by | Mar 17, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Mengelberg in New York = HANDEL: Alcina Suite (arr. Goehler); J.S. BACH: Air from Suite No. 3; J.C. BACH: Sinfonia in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 2; MOZART: Overture to Die Zauberfloete; BEETHOVEN: Egmont Overture;  MENDELSSOHN: Athalie: War March of the Priests; MEYERBEER: Le Prophete: Coronation March; WAGNER: Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel Overture; SAINT-SAENS: Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31 – Philharmonic-Sym. of NY/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 378, 72:54 [avail. In various formats from] ****:

Producer and editor Mark Obert-Thorn revitalizes a former project for Pearl (GEMM CD 9474, 1992), the Willem Mengelberg assemblage of Overtures and Short Works with the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York, which had just emerged from the New York Symphony. Mengelberg (1871-1951) represented a potent force in European music-making, having assumed the helm of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1895 and having established the music of Gustav Mahler as an integral component of modern composition. His flamboyant and authoritarian personality transferred to the New York scene in 1922, where his penchant for didactic rehearsals – that included long dissertations on Dutch porcelain – did not deter the musicians from executing marvelous ensemble.

The stylistic eccentricities that Mengelberg favored – idiosyncratic rubato, changes in orchestration and dynamics, and willful portamento – do not detract from the innate, visceral excitement of his readings. These inscriptions from 1928 – 1930 embrace works from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, many staples of the era, since they served to display the various choirs of the more virtuoso orchestras.
The Alcina Suite of Handel (16 January 1929) moves with both fervor and luster, a brief overture and five courtly dances that end with a Tamburino (hornpipe) in brisk figures. The famous Air on the G String from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D from the same session slides with elegant piety though not so “metaphysical” as the revered version by Furtwaengler. Despite the residual hiss from the original shellacs, the resonance of the performance manages to impress us with its lithe discipline. The last of these Carnegie Hall 16 January 1929 inscriptions, the J.C. Bach Sinfonia on B-flat, later became much enamored of Mengelberg’s successor with the Concertgebouw, Eduard van Beinum. The clean upward string rockets of the first movement find a charming complement in the woodwind work of the Andante, whose Handelian arioso with solo oboe makes it a minor gem. The last movement ingratiates in the simplicity of its melodic idea and jaunty rhythm, a Presto played with finesse and delicacy.

The majority of the seven remaining pieces Mengelberg did not re-record later in his tenure with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. My old mentor, Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, cherished the reading of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Overture (14 January 1930) from Liederkranz Hall for its propulsion and thoroughly canny applications of counterpoint among the orchestral choirs. The slightly reduced orchestral forces only add to the clarity of line. Mengelberg’s reading of the Beethoven Egmont Overture from this session is quite fast, as his later live performance with the Concertgebouw from 1943 runs almost a minute longer. Still, the New York reading retains the tragic countenance of Goethe’s willful hero, his struggle, and his spiritual victory in death. “I die for the liberty I lived and fought for, and to which I am now a passive sacrifice.” Nothing passive in Mengelberg’s performance, whose last pages capture the veritable whirlwind of which the conductor was capable in a heartbeat. The Humperdinck  Hansel und Gretel Overture suffers a bit of compression in the horns, but the string line remains songfully ripe, Wagner without the hubris.

I must confess that in my youth I owned the RCA shellac that combined Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests” from Athalie (16 January 1929) and Meyerbeer’s “Coronation March” from Le Prophete (15 January 1929). Strings, horns and tympani converge effectively in the Mendelssohn, although the music seems to borrow rather heavily from the Wedding March from the composer’s famous Shakespeare treatment. The Meyerbeer packs an immediate wallop, especially as the New York brass section has the requisite space to operate. The string slides add a “period” flavor to the recording, but the martial pomp and splendor of the occasion shine forth, and we can feel Verdi’s taking careful note of the musical means. The Saint-Saens symphonic poem (15 January 1929) seems like relatively adventurous fare from Mengelberg, but its streamlined finesse and hearty muscularity must have provided a model for the later likes of Beecham, Fourestier, and Mitropoulos. Kudos to Mark Obert-Thorn on this one, which preserves the individual colors – like the winds and harp and triangle – with astonishing presence.

Lastly, we have the “Forest Murmurs” from Wagner’s Siegfried (14 December 1928), the earliest of the transfers. Like the Saint-Saens, the execution revels in the homogeneity of tone and suave rhythmic license Mengelberg commands. Made as an “addendum” to the session that produced Ein Heldenleben, the Wagner also features Scipione Guidi’s work in the violin soli. The elastic intensity of the performance makes its hearing imperative, a real tour de force even for a conductor for whom every confrontation with music constituted a hero’s battle.

—Gary Lemco

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