C0123. WILLEM MENGELBERG Cond. NYPO: Symphony #1 in C; ‘Eroica’ Symphony #3 in E-flat (both Beethoven). (England) Biddulph WHL 020, recorded 1930. Transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 744718302024
“Mengelberg is lauded and pilloried, depending on the taste of the critic, for his interventionist approach to interpretation. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony offers an ample demonstration of Mengelberg’s approach, and to my ears it works extraordinarily well.
Mengelberg often employs extremes of tempo. For example, the finale opens at a very quick pace but then slows down dramatically for the second subject. He then employs a gradual accelerando to get back to the starting tempo for a restatement of the opening. Throughout the symphony he engages in similar tempo modifications that are somehow integrated into a whole that never loses its shape. Listeners who believe that the printed score is sacrosanct and should never be manipulated will be repulsed. Others, like me, who believe that music, like theater, is an art that needs interpretive skill to bring it to life, will be thrilled.
What cannot be denied is the excellence of the orchestral playing. The musicians give the conductor everything he asks for, staying with him through every twist and turn, and they do it not just with precision but with passion as well. The beauty and ensemble of the string playing in the second movement, rendered with considerable rubato, is remarkable. In fact, throughout the 41 minutes of the symphony, the closer you listen, the more felicities you find to enjoy.
I have not addressed the political issues surrounding this conductor after Hitler overran the Netherlands in 1940. FANFARE is devoted to music reviewing, not politics or history, but I cannot refrain from noting that Mengelberg enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi takeover. When the war was over he was summarily removed from his position with the Concertgebouw, and banned from conducting he ended his remaining years in Switzerland, where he died in 1951. Mengelberg was a complex artist and human being, and Frits Zwart’s biography, CONDUCTOR WILLEM MENGELBERG 1871–1951: ACCLAIMED AND ACCUSED, is recommended reading for anyone interested in learning the details of the tangled affair. I abhor the decisions he made in the latter part of his life, but I will not prevent myself from enjoying Mengelberg’s remarkable musical gifts.
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Willem Mengelberg, like Henry J. Wood, spent half a century with an institution classifiable as a national monument: from 1895 to 1945 he was music director of...the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Like Arthur Nikisch he was an early example of the commuting conductor and regularly departed Holland 1907 to 1920 for concerts in Frankfurt.
Mengelberg remained in Europe after 1930, recording for Columbia until the Depression cut into recording budgets, then for the German firm Telefunken. With the coming of the war Mengelberg accepted the Nazis…to conduct and record – meanwhile saving at least sixteen Jewish members of his orchestra and…defying the ban on playing Mahler.
Dr. Berta Geissmar, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Jewish secretary, has written in TWO WORLDS OF MUSIC about the kindnesses extended by Mengelberg on her Amsterdam visits in the late Thirties, and there are other examples of his natural non-partisan good-heartedness. Politics bored Mengelberg….He lived, in a sense, on his own special island, a monarch among invaders as well as a prince among friends….his soul was drenched in music. With virtually every performance he was living in the music’s lining and hurling himself at the barricades of interpretation....It’s not surprising that Otto Klemperer, rejected by the Third Reich, conducted a memorial concert for Mengelberg in Amsterdam shortly after his death.”
- Arthur Bloomfield, MORE THAN THE NOTES