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Willem Mengelberg (conductor)
Columbia Concertgebouw Recordings - Volume 1
 Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
rec. 1926-31, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC595 [2 CDs: 153:24]

The latest of Pristine’s extensive series of reissues of Mengelberg consists of the shorter works recorded with “his” (as the old record labels proudly put it) Concertgebouw between 1926 and 1931, of which this is the first of two 2CD volumes. These are famous records, reissued many times before, but it will be welcome to have them all conveniently collected in two volumes. Mengelberg was probably the most extreme example of the Romantic school of German conducting style which began with Weber, then through Wagner to Mahler, Nikisch, Fried, Fiedler and Furtwängler to a final flowering with Tennstedt and a dying fall with Thielemann. One can hope for a revival of the style, but nothing in the way performance practice seems headed at the moment gives any feeling of optimism about that.

The CDs are organised in chronological order of composer rather than by recording date, the more usual form followed by historical re-issues, and this volume takes us from Bach to Mendelssohn.

Bach is, of course, the furthest away from us in terms of composition date, but more importantly Mengelberg’s performance is the furthest away from us in terms of present expectations of performing style. Perhaps unexpectedly, Mengelberg seems to have had quite a taste for Baroque music; he famously conducted performances of the St. Matthew Passion in Amsterdam at Easter ever year from 1899 onwards and recorded Bach’s Double Violin Concerto and (less unexpectedly) the Air from Third Suite for Orchestra, as well as the Concerto Grosso Op.3 No.8 by Vivaldi and a suite of pieces from Handel’s Alcina – considerably more than any other mainstream conductor of the pre-war period that I can think of. There are also live performances of Bach’s F minor Keyboard Concerto BWV 1056, the Wedding Cantata BWV 202 and the Second Suite, all from 1939. This live Second Suite is with the Concertgebouw’s principal flute Hubert Barwahser. In the notes to the present CDs, Mark Obert-Thorn asserts that the flute solo is doubled in this recording, but I wonder what his evidence is for this, given that the live performance uses only one flautist; there is no imprecision of ensemble in the flute part that I can hear which might have confirmed his claim. He also says “I’m sure there’s a glockenspiel tinkling away in the Badinerie” which seems to me to be simply absurd. I have listened carefully several times and can find no glockenspiel; there are a couple of tiny noises which could almost be anything, but my guess would be that if they are not some kind of stage noise, they are far more likely to be a continuo harpsichord of the Pleyel type that Landowska used, and which can be extensively heard in the 1937 Vivaldi recording mentioned above – though why it would be otherwise utterly inaudible I cannot explain. It is interesting that the flute part is not given “star” position in the performance, but emerges as part of the orchestral texture. I must confess that much of the performance is too heavy even for my taste, though it is certainly not the case that everything is played with continuous legato – there is plenty of air between the notes of both the flute and orchestral parts in both the Rondeau and Badinerie. The most obvious divergence from modern practice is probably the huge rits at the ends of movements. However, it must be said that the 1924 acoustic recording by Robert Murchie with the Hallé under Hamilton Harty is far more stylish.

Bach père is followed by one of the many Bach fils, in this case Johann Christian, with the first two movements of his Sinfonia in B flat. Again, who would have expected Mengelberg to record music which even in today’s 18th century-obsessed times is obscure? Or to do so twice: he also recorded it with its third movement with the NYPSO eighteen months later. Unlike the Flute Suite, this is an absolutely cracking performance. The first movement has all the vitality and momentum which anyone could desire, and the Andante, though slower than it would be played today, has grace and a sense of forward movement. I also find the little touches of portamento delightful. The recording is remarkable for 1927 with a real sense of the Concertgebouw’s acoustic, the only disappointment being the rather distant woodwind. The Cherubini Anacreon Overture which follows is also superb. There is real drama here, and though (as far as I am aware) Mengelberg never conducted a single operatic performance, there is a real feel of the theatre. Listen to the sense of expectation as the slow introduction transitions into the allegro. The attack (and, again, the portamento) of the strings is a marvel, and the whole performance is a model of shaping and articulation.

We move onto more expected repertoire with Beethoven. The first piece is only one odd movement, the Allegretto from the 8th Symphony, which was the fill-up to the Cherubini. This is a performance full of character; I particularly liked the way he characterises the pizzicato two minutes into the movement. The Turkish March is also played with great panache and swagger. There then follow four overtures, two of which Mengelberg recorded twice. The Coriolan and Egmont were recorded in 1926 and 1931, and Mark Obert-Thorn has given pride of place to the 1931 recordings, relegating the 1926 ones into an appendix of “Early versions and alternative takes” at the end of the collection. This is understandable in that the 1931s are better recorded than the 1926s (though not as much better as might have been expected; indeed, the woodwind are noticeably more “in the picture” in 1926) and have quieter surfaces, but I definitely prefer the earlier performances. Both pairs are very good, but the earlier ones crucially have greater urgency and momentum; for example, the sforzato chords have a bite and energy which make the later ones sound slightly soggy. The 1926 Coriolan is my favourite of all the performances of the overture that I know. Leonore nos.1 and 3 are both excellent, though I would have liked a little more atmosphere at the start of No.3, but the conclusion is wonderfully sprung and exciting without the manic quality of Toscanini.

The 1931 Egmont is the first track of CD2 and is followed by three overtures by Weber, all of which show complete affinity with the world of German Romanticism. The Freischütz overture is first, and the opening passage for horns is gloriously expansive before moving into a sense of expectation at the allegro. There is also more of the sort of rubato which is expected of Mengelberg in these Weber pieces. In exactly the same way as I pointed out in my review of Pristine’s recent Max Fiedler set, the conductors of the Romantic school did not just ladle rubato undiscriminatingly onto everything they conducted, they applied it only where they considered it stylistically appropriate. This may not always coincide with today’s views of where it is appropriate, but it was not done mechanically or through ignorance or stupidity. The opening of the Euryanthe overture has a splendidly rumbustious feel, but the transition into the next section is most wonderfully poetic. The string playing of the section before the fugato (another place where portamento is used to great effect) is particularly memorable in its sensitivity. The opening of the Oberon overture is very fine. The poetic horn calls are answered by much more passionate strings, then come the chattering woodwind, like birds oblivious to humanity’s concerns; Mengelberg does not simply maintain the same emotional temperature throughout, but makes a whole dramatic scene out of these few bars. When the allegro arrives, the tempo is thrillingly exciting, but also full of detail and character.

Both versions of the Mendelssohn MND Scherzo have some characterful articulation in both strings and woodwind, but are not quite as light on their feet as they could have been. The two Berlioz fragments are effective, but their 1926 recordings do not do them any favours; the Sylphs are rather distant and muddy and the Hungarian March was a little beyond the technology of the time to capture. It is clear in both cases, though, that there are fine performances trying to get out. The final piece is the legendary performance of Liszt’s Les Préludes which fully lives up to its reputation. Every bar is characterised and the final peroration simply pins you to the wall. This, surely, was exactly what the composer intended.

This set is not the first time that Mark Obert-Thorn has transferred these recordings. Almost 30 years ago (in 1993) Pearl issued two 3CD sets of all Mengelberg’s Columbia recordings (that is, including the complete symphonies which Pristine have already issued). On a whim, I decided to dig out these sets just to see how the transfers compared and how much technology had moved on. To my great surprise I found that I marginally preferred the 1993 transfers. The Pristine set has noticeably quieter surfaces at times, but as a result the higher frequencies have been attenuated somewhat, resulting in sound of slightly less impact and presence. The differences are small, and would probably not even register except in direct A/B comparison, and I have no hesitation in recommending this Pristine issue highly, especially as the Pearl sets have been unavailable for years, and (at least as I write) are not even to be had second hand on Amazon. This issue contains some performances which are simply superb, and none that are without interest. If you don’t already have them, then do not hesitate.

Paul Steinson

CD 1 (74:55)
J. S. BACH: Suite No. 2 in B minor for Flutes and Strings, BWV 1067
1. Ouverture: Grave; Allegro (8:04)
2. Rondeau: Allegro (1:32)
3. Sarabande: Andante (2:08)
4. Bourées I and II (3:09)
5. Polonaise: Moderato (3:26)
6. Menuet: Allegretto (1:21)
7. Badinerie: Allegro (1:39)
Recorded 2 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6134-2, 6135-1, 6136-2, 6137-2, 6138-1 & 6139-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 134/6
J. C. BACH (arr. Stein): Sinfonia in B flat, Op. 18, No. 2 (“Lucio Silla” Overture)
8. 1st Mvt.: Allegro assai (2:55)
9. 2nd Mvt.: Andante (4:11)
Recorded 10 June 1927 ∙ Matrices: WAX 2837-1 & 2838-1 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 2047
10. CHERUBINI: Anacreon – Overture (9:39)
Recorded 10 June 1927 ∙ Matrices: WAX 2841-2, 2842-1 & 2843-1 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 1972/3
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93
11. 2nd Mvt.: Allegretto scherzando (4:03)
Recorded 10 June 1927 ∙ Matrix: WAX 2844-1 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 1973
BEETHOVEN: The Ruins of Athens – Op.113
12. No. 4 – Turkish March (2:44)
Recorded 31 May 1930 ∙ Matrix: WAX 5607-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 130
13. BEETHOVEN: Coriolan, Op. 62 – Overture (7:47)
Recorded 1 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6128-2 & 6129-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 167
14. BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 1, Op. 138 (9:10)
Recorded 2 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6132-1 & 6133-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 160
15. BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b (13:07)
Recorded 30 May 1930 ∙ Matrices: WAX 5593-2, 5594-2 & 5595-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 129/30

CD 2 (78:29)
1. BEETHOVEN: Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (8:05)
Recorded 2 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6130-2 & 6131-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 161
2. WEBER: Der Freischütz – Overture (8:58)
Recorded 1 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6126-2 & 6127-3 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 154
3. WEBER: Euryanthe – Overture (8:26)
Recorded 1 June 1931 ∙ Matrices: WAX 6124-2 & 6125-3 ∙ First issued on Columbia LX 157
4. WEBER: Oberon – Overture (9:08)
Recorded 12 May 1928 ∙ Matrices: WAX 3642-3, 3643-2 & 3644-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 2312/3
MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Incidental Music), Op. 61
5. No. 1 - Scherzo (3:46)
Recorded 12 May 1928 ∙ Matrix: WAX 3645-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia 9560
BERLIOZ: The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24
6. Dance of the Sylphs (2:22)
7. Hungarian March (3:21)
Recorded May, 1926 ∙ Matrices: WAX 1543-3 & 1542-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 1810
8. LISZT: Les Préludes, G97 (15:26)
Recorded 11 June 1929 ∙ Matrices: WAX 5044-2, 5045-2, 5046-2 & 5047-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 2362/3

Early Versions and Alternate Takes

9. BEETHOVEN: Coriolan, Op. 62 – Overture (7:34)
Recorded May, 1926 ∙ Matrices: WAX 1546-2 & 1547-2 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 1848
10. BEETHOVEN: Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (7:34)
Recorded May, 1926 ∙ Matrices: WAX 1544-3 & 1545-1 ∙ First issued on Columbia L 1799
MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Incidental Music), Op. 61
11. No. 1 - Scherzo (3:50)
Recorded 12 May 1928 ∙ Matrix: WAX 3645-1 ∙ First issued on American Columbia 67486-D

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