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Mengelberg: New York Recordings - Volume 1
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Marche Slav
, Op. 31 [9:49]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Ride of the Valkyries
from Die Walküre [5:23]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Artist’s Life
- Waltz, Op. 316 [4:43]
Tales from the Vienna Woods - Waltz, Op. 325 [4:36]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben
, Op. 40 [41:25]
Scipione Guidi (violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Tchaikovsky, Wagner, J Strauss) Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (R Strauss)/Willem Mengelberg
rec. 4 January 1926 (Tchaikovsky, Wagner); 10 January 1927 (J Strauss) 11-13 December, 1928 (R Strauss), Carnegie Hall, New York

Experience Classicsonline

We have a piece of musical history here and a direct link with Richard Strauss himself. Strauss dedicated Ein Heldenleben to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra and though the composer gave the first performance of the work in 1899 Mengelberg and his orchestra took it up later that same year. That, I believe, was the first of 89 performances of the work that the Dutch conductor led. I think I’m also right in saying that while he was at the helm of the Amsterdam orchestra he allowed no other conductor to direct them in the work - though he did make one exception, for Strauss himself, in 1907. Mengelberg made a famous recording of the piece in Amsterdam in April 1941 and it is available on Naxos. Both Jonathan Woolf and Tony Duggan admired that recording. I haven’t heard the Naxos transfer myself; my copy is on a Telefunken Legacy disc, issued back in 1999 (3984-28409-2).
However, despite the association between Amsterdam and Ein Heldenleben Mengelberg’s 1941 recording was not the first that he’d made of the work. He’d set it down some thirteen years earlier in New York. Tony Duggan felt that the conductor dug deeper into the work in 1941. However, both he and Jonathan drew attention to the finer playing offered by the New Yorkers and I’d agree with them.
Mark Obert-Thorn, the sorcerer of audio restoration, is responsible for this transfer - as he was for the Naxos transfer of the 1941 recording. At the time that I listened to this release and wrote this review it was 84 years, almost to the day, since this recording was made and, frankly, I’m astonished at the fullness of the sound and the amount of detail that Obert-Thorn has managed to retrieve from his original sources - he used pre-war U.S. Victor “Z” and “Gold” label pressings. True, the sound is compressed at times, notably in the battle scene and in the ardent climax of the Love Scene. However, I can assure readers that you get a very good idea indeed of what the performance sounded like. The New York orchestra put on a virtuoso display for Mengelberg and I’d venture to suggest that Mr Obert-Thorn has matched their virtuosity in the transfer process.
It’s a splendid performance, even if the style is not what one would expect today. Portamenti abound, for example. Listen in particular to the great violin melody in ‘The Hero’s Retreat from the World’ (track 10, 3:49 - 5:00), where Mengelberg really lingers, drawing out the line expansively and encouraging his fiddles to swoop in unison from one note to the next. This, remember, is a style and sound that the composer would have recognised. I loved it! When the Hero’s theme appears at the start of the piece it’s invested with real swagger and a few minutes later the critics are portrayed with acid bite - the New York woodwinds are tremendously agile hereabouts. Concertmaster Scipione Guidi is absolutely superb, giving a vivid and capricious portrayal of the Hero’s Companion after which the Love Scene is suitably voluptuous. This section is one of many in which the recording demonstrates the tremendous quality of the PSONY’s violins.
Despite the compressed sound the battle scene is obviously dispatched with panache and great brilliance and when the Hero’s theme reappears it does so resplendently and in triumph. Strauss’s ingenious tapestry of self-quotation in ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ is expansively laid out by Mengelberg, the reflective mood expertly caught. The closing pages glow wonderfully: Scipione Guidi caresses his solo lines and the principal horn matches him for expressiveness. As I said earlier, you wouldn’t hear Ein Heldenleben done this way nowadays but it’s a very considerable performance directed by a man who could approach the score with unique authority.
The 1941 performance comes in brighter sound, at least in the Telefunken transfer in my collection, and is better able to cope with the climaxes and to convey detail. However, this transfer of the 1928 recording is highly successful and, in my opinion, is scarcely a poor relation in the sonic stakes. Indeed, in some ways I found it more comfortable to hear than the brighter 1941 version, at least as transferred by Telefunken. I can only echo Tony Duggan’s advice that the ideal is to own both performances.
Inevitably, the other items on the disc are rather put in the shade byEin Heldenleben. Also the source material isn’t quite so impressive and there’s more surface noise in evidence. Also the Marche Slav recording sounds a bit more shrill. However, all performances are well worth hearing.
I’m not sure that this wasn’t the first-ever recording of Ein Heldenleben. Whether that is the case or not it’s a very important document in the performance history of the score and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll hear it to better advantage than in this fine new transfer. Incidentally, this is the first in a series of five volumes which will encompass all Mengelberg’s New York recordings, made for Victor and Brunswick in the period 1922 - 1930. In this present volume the smaller items were set down for Brunswick while Ein Heldenleben was a Victor production. [Succeeding volumes will be published by Pristine Classical and not Historic Recordings]
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben

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