Pristine Audio CD PASC104, 40:59 (www.pristineclassical.com, either download or actual CD-R available) ****:
Recorded 11-13 December 1928, this spectacular performance of the Richard Strauss ode to musical and personal aggrandizement, Ein Heldenleben, is its debut on record, given by its dedicatee, Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951). As adjusted by Pristine’s XR-process under the supervision of engineer Andrew Rose, the original shellacs leave no trace of themselves, the segues between the six major sections seamless. While the liner notes do not credit first violin Scipione Guidi, his silky playing of the “beloved” Pauline motifs throughout the score warrant our admiration, as his fluid reading seems to my ears even more devotional than that which Ferdinand Helman achieved with Mengelberg for his second inscription with the Concertgebouw in 1940.
The absolutely virtuoso quality of the performance is, doubtless, Mengelberg’s calling-card, the energized brass and string playing (given their capacity to produce heroic-scale slides) superbly and romantically over the top. But the woodwinds, too, with their sniping titters–characterizing the Hero’s adversaries, aka music critics)–carry an acerbic, biting tone rare in performances. Mengelberg, after the extended love-scene of section three, has been awaiting The Hero’s Battlefield, so he unleash the polyphonic beauties of the New York Philharmonic when an ersatz Napoleon leads it. The metrical perplexities of the battle–as opposed to the melos of the mistress’ devotions–only add combustible ecstasies to the heady mix and hurly-burly, as the Hero’s leitmotif wends its way under and over the brew as a kind of recapitulation for the tone-poem’s wiry version of sonata-form. The trumpet part pushes upward into a stratospheric yawp, and the whole edifice comes tumbling down in fragments of galloping Don Juan motifs and bits from the opera Guntram. The taut line never wavers; and for all of Toscanini’s musical and intellectual aversion to much of Mengelberg, something of that uncompromising vision must have made itself a dent in Toscanini’s own persona.
Mengelberg treats the entire last two sections–The Hero’s Works of Peace and The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Consummation–as a kind of epilogue from Hamlet, a series of reconciliations with direct quotes from the Strauss catalogue underpinned by Beethoven’s Eroica. The New York Philharmonic basses make their presence felt, along with some deep resonance from the low brass. Certainly, by the end of the sections, with horns, strings, and harp afloat, we wish we had a full realization of Mengelberg’s Tod und Verklaerung on record. Monster slides in the strings, caesuras, all sorts of nostalgic sentiment froths over the musical canvas like molasses; but the intense power and cumulative effect of the reading remains undeniable. Guidi makes one last appearance over a bass pedals; the drooping figures toll with tympanic and French horn accompaniment. Three chords from Zarathustra, and we bid our Sweet Prince goodnight. Heartily recommended.
— Gary Lemco