Willem Mengelberg Conducts = J.C. BACH: Sinfonia in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 2; RAVEL: Bolero; R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben – Scipione Guidi, violin (Strauss)/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Ravel)/Willem Mengelberg, conductor

Opus Kura OPK 2076, 66:07 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Yet another re-processing of Willem Mengelberg’s classic 1928 rendition of the Strauss autobiographical tone-poem Ein Heldenleben with the New York Philharmonic, just recently issued (2007) by Pristine Audio. Opus Kura provides more music, supplementing the Strauss attempt to represent his ego via Beethoven’s heroic E-flat Symphony with music by J.C. Bach (1929) and Ravel (1930). These New York Philharmonic inscriptions by the Dutch megalomaniac have been available prior, via the Pearl label.

The relatively quiet remastering of the J.C. Bach reveals a tender side to the Mengelberg persona, usually one of inflated, charismatic grandeur. The lovely middle movement, a veritable oboe concerto in a spirit akin to Gluck, enjoys an intimacy rare in any Mengelberg recording I know. The last movement makes a charming precursor to Haydn and Mozart, pre-classically graceful and blithe. Excellent sonorities from the New York Philharmonic basses and celli to augment a luscious, vibrant upper string ensemble.

The Bolero suffers more surface noise than the Bach, but the technique of an inexorable crescendo suits the Mengelberg taste for massive sound wonderfully. Some speed and pitch variation in the original masters dictate against proclaiming this transfer definitive, but the visceral excitement of an unfolding “experiment” in what Ravel called “musical tissue without substance” remains eminently exciting. Snare, harp, oboe and the multifarious colors that contribute to the cumulative effect of this ever-popular spectacle shine forth in clear, idiomatic tones, the brass particularly piercing in the nasal, Francophile tradition. The patient, relentless momentum does take us over, and we wish Maya Plisetskaya had been alive to have danced with such a convinced, orchestral partner.

No big news anymore that Strauss dedicated Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg, both men devotees to their common idol, Mahler. I can well remember when the RCA Camden LP of this 1928 performance brought much money from rabid collectors. And for good reason: even beyond his later, 1940 reading of the score with Ferdinand Helman at the first violin part, this interpretation conveys spontaneity, aggression, scope, and spirited vitality on a thoroughly unique plateau. It, too, awes and charms us by the variations in orchestral scale, which, I confess, often do plummet the mysteries of intimacy, as well as of heaven-storming to match Shelley’s ego in “Ode to the West Wind”: Strauss, too, falls upon the thorns of life and bleeds for forty, inflamed minutes. The episodic confrontations with ridicule, love, support, mortality, and finally, spiritual acceptance, culminate in strong allusions, even quotations, from Beethoven’ Eroica. The romantic style of performance, rife with slides, rhetorical fermatae, rubati, somehow coalesce in that magical brew we call orchestral magic. Not to be missed in whatever CD format you choose, this instantiation as good as any.  Why does no one credit concertmaster Guidi these days?

–Gary Lemco