C1822. WILLEM MENGELBERG Cond. Concertgebouw Orch.: Elegiac Melodies Nos. 1 & 2 (Grieg); Anacreon - Overture (Cherubini); Ein Heldenleben (Strauss); WILLEM MENGELBERG Cond. NYPO: Le Rouet d'Omphale (Saint-Saëns). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-1018, recorded 1927-31. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“The big news here is a superb transfer of Willem Mengelberg’s classic 1941 Concertgebouw recording of Strauss’ EIN HELDENLEBEN. Devotees of the Dutch conductor have long debated whether this or his 1928 New York version is to be preferred. I, for one, am thrilled to have both. Earlier EMI transfers of the Concertgebouw recording were quite poor, restricted in both dynamic range and orchestral color. A transfer by Hubert Wendel on his own label some years ago was excellent but very difficult to find. A Naxos transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn in 2001 was better than EMI’s effort and not quite as brilliant as Wendel’s. There was also a fine transfer on Teldec by Seth Winner, but Yves Saint-Laurent’s is a significant improvement over any of them. I directly compared this new one with each of those earlier ones, and was surprised at the degree of improvement that Saint-Laurent Studio has achieved. Working from Capitol-Telefunken 78s, Saint-Laurent has given us what I believe is the most vivid picture yet of the range of orchestral color that Mengelberg drew from the score. One can say that the New York Philharmonic of 1928 was a superior orchestra to the 1941 Concertgebouw, which had suffered personnel losses due to the Nazi takeover of the Netherlands in 1940. But what remained was still a fine orchestra, which plays EIN HELDENLEBEN with passion, in a work that Strauss dedicated by Strauss to this conductor and orchestra.
For those who think of Mengelberg as a significantly interventionist conductor, this performance might surprise. The conducting is flexible, employing more rubato than others might have, but it is in no way excessive. The same can be said for Mengelberg’s use of portamento in the strings. It is tastefully applied and is responsible for the sense of warmth that pervades the entire performance. The overall shape of the score is never distended, and the warmth and sheer beauty of the love music as well as the force of The Hero’s battles are all present in the right proportions. If I try to compare the two Mengelberg recordings, I would say that there is a bit more energy and even animal excitement in New York but richer strings and firmer shaping of the slow music in Amsterdam. Anyone who loves this music should not be without the Concertgebouw recording, and St. Laurent Studio’s version is the one to have.
For filler, St. Laurent has added the kind of bon-bons that used to be an integral part of the symphonic repertoire but have, sadly, fallen out of fashion. The original recording of Cherubini’s ANACREON Overture was overly reverberant, and no transfer has ever solved that problem. YSL has managed to tame the boominess a bit, but removing reverberation is simply not something that can be done. Mengelberg’s reading is firmly shaped and affectionate, but it still sounds like it is being played in an empty oil drum. Better are the two Grieg Elegiac Melodies, with a more focused recorded sound and the richness of string playing that was a hallmark of the Mengelberg Concertgebouw in its prime (the Grieg pieces were recorded in 1931). Whether playing at full throttle or with the most delicate pianissimi, the strings never lose the core of their tone. As for Saint-Saëns’ colorful depiction of Omphale’s spinning wheel, a listener predisposed to think of Mengelberg as a heavy-handed conductor of the German school will likely be surprised at the lightness of touch and the delicate transparency of color he draws from the orchestra. For all of these miniatures, the new transfer is cleaner and fuller than any prior one I’ve encountered.
As is the norm for this label, there are no program notes but complete documentation of the original recording dates."
- 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.
Perhaps a clue to Mengelberg’s wartime indiscretions, sinful and virtuous, may be found in a character summation supplied by one of the wisest ever of conductors’ wives, Doris Monteux. As she writes in IT’S ALL IN THE MUSIC, Mengelberg was ‘one of the most fascinating personalities I ever met; he was at the same time kind and generous, unkind and small, bombastic yet gentle, childishly naïve, foolishly proud and pompous yet ridden with a feeling of unworthiness, religious yet at times positively hedonistic. Truly a more complex character never lived’.”
- Arthur Bloomfield, MORE THAN THE NOTES