C1949. WILLEM MENGELBERG Cond. Concertgebouw Orch.: Vivaldi, von Suppé, Wagner & Tschaikowsky (the latter's Symphony #4 in f). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-1200, recorded 1927-38. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This collection is an excellent representation of the art of Willem Mengelberg, music director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam for the remarkable tenure of 50 years (1895–1945). 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.
The handling of the Vivaldi concerto for two violins would never pass muster by HIP standards, but for its time the performance is surprisingly tasteful, which serves as a reminder of how often Baroque music used to find its way on to the programs of major orchestras. This performance is richly textured, and elegant.
Franz von Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture is the kind of Romantic chestnut that has also disappeared from the programming of today’s symphony orchestras, a major loss. Mengelberg’s beautiful shaping of the introduction, with exquisite playing from the principal cello, leads into a frenetic but always controlled central section. Mengelberg employs an effective portamento in the strings and a give-and-take in tempo modifications that is irresistible. This performance is a combination of dramatic excitement and sensuous romanticism.
Finally, a personal favorite of mine, Mengelberg’s 1927 reading of the Act I Prelude to LOHENGRIN. I have often used this recording to introduce friends and colleagues to Mengelberg’s art. The variety of string color, the effectiveness of his carefully planned use of portamento, not only in the melodic line but internal passages as well, the suppleness of phrasing - this is the conducting of a master.
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.
Experienced listeners will want to know how this new remastering compares with the best previous transfers, which for the most part are on Pristine (the Vivaldi concerto is on Biddulph). Pristine’s approach is somewhat more interventionist, adding hall ambiance and enriching the orchestral color somewhat. It is an extremely valid approach, and one that I enjoy a great deal. Producer Yves St-Laurent takes a different approach. His sources here are the best copies he could find of the original 78-rpm discs. He has carefully corrected any pitch variances, locating the exact center of each side (not something one can take for granted), and removing the loudest ticks, in his attempt to faithfully reproduce the full sound spectrum on the originals. YSL uses Denis Pelletier’s vacuum tube equipment (phono stage, preamp, and amplifier) which, he tells me, is handmade using old tubes from the 1920s.
The result is certainly different from Pristine’s, but to my ears it is also satisfying. For any collectors who has not yet discovered the remarkable art of Willem Mengelberg, this disc makes a great introduction.”
- 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