Willem Mengelberg: The Columbia Recordings, Vol. 1 – Pristine Audio 

by | May 12, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Willem Mengelberg: The Columbia Recordings, Vol. 1 (1926-1931) = Works by  J.S. BACH; J.C. BACH; CHERUBINI; BEETHOVEN; WEBER; MENDELSSOHN; BERLIOZ; LISZT – Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/ Willem Mengelberg – Pristine Audio PASC 595 (2 CDs, complete listing below) 74:55; 78:29 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Restoration Engineer and historic-recordings specialist Mark Obert-Thorn returns to the glamour of conductor Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), the long-time leader of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra noted for his idiosyncratic and flamboyant style.  These first recorded documents of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mengelberg testify to a world- class, virtuoso ensemble thoroughly responsive to the conductor who had led  them since 1895, when he performed the Liszt E-flat Concerto as the soloist before assuming the podium for the next 50 years.  Among these sonically rousing restorations, the 1929 Columbia Liszt Les Preludes has withstood the test of time in splendid form, and those who recall the vinyl Entre LP (RL 3039) will relish its newest incarnation.

Mengelberg maintained a fondness for the 1803 Anacreon Overture by Luigi Cherubini, which he recorded 10 June 1927.   The music bears a hearty energy, a robust, slow introduction’s leading to a powerful Allegro.   Its alternation of sturdy, dramatic chords and fleeting, brisk melodic tissue seems to call to the future writing of Beethoven.  The piccolo, four horns, and three trombones add a lusty girth to the clear, bravura execution by the Concertgebouw strings.  Nothing of the sound in this restoration provides a clue to the age of the reading.

The opening of Disc One provides a musical curio: Mengelberg offers an otherwise idiomatic, lucid rendition of the Bach Suite No. 2 (2 June 31), except that he has scored the work for two flutes!  The relatively lush, Romantic orchestration and rhythmic freedom do not detract from the essential musicality of the performance, though the style of the realization would invoke disdain among contemporary scholars and pedants. The J.C. Bach Sinfonia from 1927 receives only two movements, but the oboe playing in the Andante lulls us, as it would the two conductors of the Concertgebouw who recorded the music as successors: Eduard van Beinum and David Zinman. Along with Sir Henry Wood, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Felix Weingartner, Mengelberg installed himself as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Beethoven in the 1920s.  The brisk and pert reading of the Scherzo from the Beethoven Eighth from the same session as the Cherubini has wit and transparency. I myself owned the 78 rpm incarnation of the Turkish March from the Incidental Music for The Ruins of Athens (3 May 1930), and so hearing it restored in fine sound awakened early, earthy impressions of an infectious example of the Mengelberg magic.

Mengelberg’s recording of the Beethoven Overture in C Minor, Coriolan (1 June 1931) moves quickly but does not lack for dramatic punch. The Concertgebouw bass line proves noteworthy.  Mengelberg, like his contemporary and New York colleague Arturo Toscanini had affection for the most neglected of the four overtures to Beethoven’s Fidelio, the Leonore Overture No. 1 (rec. 2 June 1931).  The stop-on-the dime precision of the string and tympani playing beguiles us, and the Concertgebouw woodwinds enjoy a controlled luster.  The sense of Romantic sweep and evolving heroism keeps the tautness of the line, resonant and informed by the sense of instrumental vocalism. The familiar Egmont Overture, after Goethe’s melodrama (rec. 2 June 1931), provides a spacious, ominous opening followed by a whirlwind revolt against the oppressor.  The major Beethoven contribution comes in the form of Beethoven’s massive Leonore Overture No. 3 (30 May 1930), whose musical compression of the opera proper renders the stage incarnation superfluous. The enchained Florestan will soon find liberation and justice, the latter invoked by the offstage trumpet call. The plastic use of terraced dynamics and broad pedal points feeds the Mengelberg sound concept to perfection, along with some solid work in Beethoven’s contrapuntal passages. Those Mannheim rockets in the strings warrant the price of admission.

The triptych of Weber overtures – Der Freischuetz (1 June 1931); Euryanthe (1 June 1931); and Oberon (12 May 1928) – demonstrate the extraordinary homogeneity of ensemble Mengelberg commanded after 35 years at the helm of the Concertgebouw, an extended discipline rivaled by a select few: Stokowski, Toscanini, Koussevitzky, and Mravinsky.  The Der Freischuetz has energized sweep and pungently imaginative colors. The seamless restoration by Obert-Thorn, maintaining the warm clarity of the occasion, belies the age of the document.  The last pages, breathless and passionate, quite illuminate the Gothic melodrama. The most memorable instant in the Euryanthe Overture occurs at its dramatic opening, though its wonderful main melody has preserved the music from having fallen into total obscurity.  Please, a happy nod to the Concertgebouw full string complement and to the tympani.  The transition section prior to the contrapuntal development has all the intimacy of a chamber music ensemble. Oberon remains my personal favorite among Weber overtures: its sense of magic and pantheistic beauty afford it a special place in the Romantic ethos: and is not Victor Jory’ performance in the filmed Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream his most visually appealing moment? Here, in Weber, Mengelberg applies his long-established stylistic formulas: deep and liquid portmamentos, explosive fortes, and stunning, precise running passagework. The Concertgebouw horns and winds prove enchanting. It seems in retrospect that the Scherzo from Mendelssohn, recorded the same day, should complement the Weber, light, lithe, and delightfully fantastical.

The month of May 1926 supplies the earliest efforts from Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, including the music of Berlioz, whom the conductor esteemed. The two excerpts from The Damnation of Faust (1846) open with the diaphanous Dance of the Sylphs, in which harp, bassoon and strings intone a lustrous dream-vision. Given Berlioz’s refusal to adhere to Goethe’s legend, the scene transports us to Hungary, where the Rakoczy March assumes a muscular power.  The alternative take for Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture urges the momentum slightly faster than the document five years later, and the rubatos indulge themselves according to Mengelberg’s whim.  The Egmont Overture plays a full half-minute more quickly than the later version, the fluent Allegro rising to a manic power of expression quite compelling.

Liszt’s 1854 symphonic poem Les Preludes takes its literary inspiration form Alphonse de Lamartine, who speaks of “the enchanted dawn of every life” that Liszt compresses into a three-note motif that infiltrates the entirety of the score. The same motif opens Franck’s Symphony in D minor. The score has received any number of powerful recordings, including my favorite by Ferenc Fricsay in Berlin, and that same Berlin Philharmonic with Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Mengelberg’s performance has tremendous girth, not the least emanating from the quartet of horns. The secondary theme has fluidity and tender lyricism, virtually the equal of Fricsay, indulging however in more rubato. The wealth of color, per expectation, comes in the various slides and rapid tugs at the basic tempo, which in its most parodic form labeled the conductor “Mangleberg.” But for Lamartine’s “mortal blast” and “tempest” that wounds the human soul, there exist few renditions to compare with Willem Mengelberg and his venerable ensemble.

J.S. BACH: Suite No. 2 in B minor for 2 Flutes and Strings, BWV 1067
J.C. BACH: Sinfonia in B-flat Major, OP. 18, No. 2 (arr. Stein)
CHERUBINI: Anacreon Overture
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93: Allegretto scherzando; The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113: Turkish March; Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Leonore Overtute No. 1, Op. 138; Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b; Egmont Overture, Op. 84a
WEBER: Der Freischuetz Overture; Euryanthe Overture; Oberon Overture
MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61
BERLIOZ: The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24: Dance of the Sylphs; Hungarian March
LISZT: Les Preludes
BEETHOVEN: Egmont Overture and Coriolan Overture
MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo: Early Versions and Alternate Takes

—Gary Lemco

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