Willem Mengelberg – Concertgebouw Columbia Recordings, Vol. 2 – Pristine Audio

by | Jan 4, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Mengelberg Concertgebouw Columbia Recordings, Volume 2 = WAGNER: Tannhauser  – Overture (Dresden version – 2 recordings); Lohengrin: Prelude, Act I; BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80; Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: Un poco allegretto  e grazioso; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; SUPPE: Poet and Peasant Overture; J. STRAUSS II: Perpetuum Mobile, Op. 257; BIZET: Adagietto from L’Arlesienne; GRIEG: Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; MAHLER: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor; RAVEL: Bolero; TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for Strings – Waltz – Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 616 (2 CDs) 73:07; 65:22 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:   

Producer and Recording Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn provides us a second installment of Willem Mengelberg’s Columbia shellacs made with his own Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, 1926-1932.  We realize the significance of Mengelberg’s contribution in specifically Romantic musical literature, particularly in his rare document in Mahler, where only a complete Mahler 4th and a performance of Songs of a Wayfarer (with Hermann Schey) exist from what had been an ongoing, creative relationship between Mahler and the conductor.  The music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Grieg prove no less important to our appreciation of the Mengelberg style, a vital and thoroughly energized approach to structure and interior details, particularly in rhythm, where the use of portamento, ritenuto, and tempo rubato, selectively applied, add a discernible drama to Mengelberg’s interpretations.    

Franz von Suppe’s 1846 Poet and Peasant Overture (11 May 1932) provides a perfect case in point: a brass, stentorian flourish leads to sudden change of tempo to introduce the cello solo (Marix Loevensohn), over lulling harp arpeggios.  We hear a diaphanous texture in the winds, a gradual acceleration, not merely of tempo rubato, but of tempo giusto, the maintenance of the pulsated momentum. The ensuing waltz, the can-can syncopations, and the frenetic Allegro strepitoso enjoy a luxury of affect and a startling homogeneity of attack. We have here true, virtuoso playing from a master of articulation and phrase.  So, too, the rarity in Mengelberg, the document of Johann Strauss, II: his Perpetuum Mobile, also from 11 May 1932. The speedy polka shows off virtually every choir in the Concertgebouw’s color arsenal, including an active tympani. The music embodies the Gemütlichkeit spirit of 19th Century optimism, whatever the political realities.  Usually, a piece like this would “belong” to Clemens Krauss, but Mengelberg makes its Viennese charm very much his own.

The two Grieg Elegiac Melodies: Heart Wounds and The Last Spring (3 June 1931) demonstrate the deep resonance of the Concertgebouw strings, with luftpausen adding to the unfolding drama. Grieg himself demanded Mengelberg and his orchestra for a planned festival of Norwegian music, his claiming that no Norwegian ensemble was up to the task! “Heart Wounds” from Mengelberg, with its excruciatingly lovely melody, has a major competitor from Koussevitzky, who unfortunately never recorded Op. 34, No. 1. The transparency of sound Mengelberg achieves remains a model of orchestral discipline.

To return to Mengelberg’s strong suit, Obert-Thorn restores – in vivid sound – the splendid 9 May 1932 Tannhauser Overture of Richard Wagner, a lushly tempered rendition that emanates grandeur and sensuous volatility, at once. Once more, we concede the conductor’s penchant for slides and rubato, but his fundamental mode remains his accuracy in tempo giusto. The gestures become thrilling and heroic, the middle section’s evocation of the lures of the orgiastic Venusberg underlined by selective ritenutos. The whirlwind last pages have the two impulses collide, the pietest and the sensualist; in my opinion, only Otto Klemperer in London comes close the majesty Mengelberg realizes. As an addendum, Obert-Thorn proffers a slightly more expansive Tannhauser Overture from May 1926, whose own riches cannot be denied.

If ever the key of A Major invokes spiritual radiance, the tones of Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I fulfill its purpose, an elevated anticipation of the Holy Grail. Mengelberg (10 June 1927) does not spare the portamento here, and the slides effect an emotional urgency.  For a comparative discipline in string sound, we would have to look to Leopold Stokowski and his Philadelphia players.  In Mengelberg’s case and unlike Stokowski, he did not transfer his idiosyncratic slides and rhythmic tugs to other ensembles when Mengelberg guest conducted. The brass, string, and cymbal work at the climax convey a potent and reverential effect.

Mengelberg claimed a stylistic lineage to Brahms via Franz Wüllner (1832- 1902).  The melancholy emphasis in the Brahms style, its innate pessimism, would, in the context of a burgeoning post-Romanticism, give birth to a desire for a new ideal of community, one that transcended the individual, but that vision died with the Weimar Republic. The Academic Festival Overture (30 May 1930) reveals quickly its alternately martial and elegiac character, finishing of course, with a humorous homage to drink and to boisterous, collegiate life and the reception of an honorary doctorate from Breslau University.  Mengelberg injects dash and explosive energy into his rendition, fully resonant in the string and brass sections.   The sublime melody of Der Landesvater enjoys the standard, Mengelberg rhythmic formulas. The five-bar melody for the Un poco allegretto e grazioso provides some relief from the dark tensions of the Brahms C Minor Symphony No. 1, Op. 68. Mengelberg (32 May 1930) takes the music at a brisk tempo but without sacrificing the fine lines of his woodwinds. An intense, gripping reading, it must stand for the conductor’s never having committed the whole symphony to commercial lacquers, though a live broadcast performance exists on Pristine (PASC 221). 

Mengelberg’s Brahms 1883 Third Symphony (10 May 1931) – his shortest and most economical of the four – possesses drive and breadth, with Mengelberg’s taking the first movement repeat, letting us savor the richly nuanced sound of his elastic strings and pungent woodwinds.  No less an authority than Antonin Dvorak, a rare initiate into the Brahms creative process, heard Brahms in the preparatory stages of the work and remarked on its vibrant coloration, “magnificent melodies,” and metric flexibility, challenges and goals that Mengelberg accepts with dynamic finesse.  Once more, the impulse, tempo giocoso, reigns as the layered climax – with its constant F-A-flat-F mantra – of the opening Allegro con brio reaches voluptuous proportions. A brisk but ardent Andante leads to the Poco allegretto, whose elegant 12-bar phrase, waltz structure undergoes a series of Mengelberg adjustments, all of which contribute to an autumnal beauty. Mengelberg exploits the music’s constant ambivalence between F Major and F minor, now ripe in the Allegro finale, bristling with dramatic tension. Besides the excellent work in the bassoons and trombones, the Concertgebouw strings project every kind of “fateful” menace that soon announces itself blatantly via Beethoven’s Fifth.  Given the muscular power of Mengelberg’s reading, that the music cyclically and quietly succumbs to its F Major opening seems even more miraculous.

The controlled intimacy Mengelberg elicits in Bizet’s Adagietto (11 June 1929) seems a natural extension of his sublime work in Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony of May 1926. The score already contains several written-out portamentos, including large intervals on G and on E in the strings, which demand what one Mahler scholar has termed “portamento distribution” between strings. Surprisingly brief in duration (7:15), Mengelberg’s reading does not move in rushed terms but proceeds as a series of melodic slides over harp figurations that combine in an agonized, often convulsive, bliss. 

After the Mahler on Disc 2, the Ravel Bolero (31 May 1930) comes as an anomalous juxtaposition, with its “instrumental texture lacking music” in perpetual crescendo.  In his accompanying note, Obert-Thorn mentions the technical issues involved in the recording, the stops for 78 shellac timing requirements and the variation in sound levels, but I find the concept direct and engaging, with some fine instrumental acuity in the oboe and trumpet. The collection end with an unpublished take from Tchaikovsky’s C Major Serenade for Strings, the Valse (rec. 12 May 1928). The opening chords alone almost evoke Furtwaengler, but the remainder of this rejected moment of music history is pure Mengelberg; and Obert-Thorn suggests a bit of mishap a minute before the end may have prompted the conductor’s rejection of a still-fascinating moment of artistic style. 

—Gary Lemco

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