Classical Notes

Willem Mengelberg: The Columbia Recordings

    Volume 1:
J. S. Bach: Orchestral Suite # 2
J. C. Bach: Sinfonia in B-flat
Beethoven: Leonore # 1, Leonore # 3, Coriolan & Egmont Overtures
Weber: Der Freischutz, Euryanthe & Oberon Overtures
Liszt: Les Preludes
Wagner: Lohengrin Prelude; Tannhauser Overture
Brahms: Symphony # 3; Academic Festival Overture
    Pearl CDS 9018 (3 CDs)

    Volume 2:
Suppe: Poet and Peasant Overture
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4 and 5; Romeo and Juliet Overture
Mahler: Symphony # 5: Adagietto
Ravel: Bolero
Appendix of alternate versions.
    Pearl CDS 9070 (3 CDs)

Before discussing this magnificent music,treble clef graphic there is one less pleasant matter that simply cannot be avoided in these times of political correctness.

The Nazi onslaught was a litmus test for European artists. Jews, of course, had no choice but to emigrate, as their careers and ultimately their lives were slated for extinction. Others such as Casals, Toscanini and Busch could have stayed in occupied Europe but chose to demonstrate their disgust by refusing further association with the invaders. Willem Mengelberg Caught in the middle were Germans of conscience such as Furtwangler, who at great personal risk combined their activities with quiet but heroic deeds. Other amoral Germans such as von Karajan, Bohm and Krauss openly embraced the new leadership rather than uproot themselves from their native land and heritage.

And then there was Mengelberg, head of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. When the Germans occupied Holland, he actively collaborated, becoming a member of the German Culture Cabinet, conducting at the Nazis' behest, giving the fascist salute, and even deporting the Jews in his orchestra. Mengelberg's supporters insist that his wartime record included humanitarian work and in any event was no different from that of other "pure" artists who remained aloof from politics and who did whatever was necessary to continue their cultural pursuits. But unlike the others, Mengelberg lived in a country that regarded collaboration as shameful and whose citizens compiled a commendable record of resistance. So while von Karajan, Bohm and the other amoralists were quickly restored to public favor after the war, the Netherlands stripped Mengelberg of his past honors, barred him from public appearances and sentenced him to permanent exile. He retired to Switzerland, where he died in 1951.

With so many great historic artists out there, why bother with a scoundrel? Because in spite of his politics, Mengelberg's talents are a unique window to the performing style of the last century.

The other conductors trained and immersed in 19th century traditions who lived to cut records generally fall into two stylistic camps. The first included Weingartner (born in 1863), Strauss (1864) and Toscanini (1967), who ushered in the modern era of suppressing personal interpretive inclinations in favor of an "objective" approach to the composer's intentions. The second school included Nikisch (1855), Mahler (1860), Fried (1871), Koussevitzky (1874), Stokowski (1882) and Furtwangler (1886), who were known for imposing their distinctive individual imprints upon the music they played. Mengelberg, though, was unique, as he combined the attributes of both groups.

Mengelberg's supercharged virtuostic performances were hardly an objective reproduction of the score. But neither does his interpretive freedom suggest a deeply personal or egotistical inspiration. Rather, his power stays close to the surface to display the sheer sound of a fine orchestra. Thus, the extremes of his dynamics and tempos nearly always serve to heighten the effects of the climaxes, melodies and other emotional emphases already written into the score. Even in Mengelberg's most wayward moments (and his unbuckled record of Ravel's Bolero is a riot) it is the intrinsic energy and power of the music that emerges, rather than a highly personal vision.Pearl CD set of the complete Mengelberg Columbia recordings Thus, Mengelberg just may be the most reliable indication of the essence of authentic 19th century conducting, in which an artist was expected to fill in the expressive gaps in the cold written score. Mengelberg achieves this without overpowering the music in his own personality. Thus, the Mengelberg recordings present the aesthetic of the last century in perhaps its purest form.

Far more evident than these subtleties as the overriding hallmark of Mengelberg's work is the gorgeous quality of the sound itself, which arose from his extensive musical background. Mengelberg is often remembered as a virtuoso of the orchestra, who demanded such close attention to performance detail that his elaborate preparations included up to a half-hour of tuning each instrument. His blended orchestral sound also emerged from his training as a singer and his rhythmic precision and flexible tempos derived from his career as a solo pianist.

But more than anything else, Mengelberg's lustrous sound resulted from a factor unheard of nowadays: his continuous association with a single orchestra for a period of 50 years. After receiving his training in Germany, Mengelberg came to Amsterdam in 1895 to lead its newly-formed Concertgebouw Orchestra. Despite part-time assignments abroad, Mengelberg remained at the helm of the Concertgebouw until his ouster in 1945. During that time, he raised the ensemble from a provincial group to one of the world's top orchestras and developed the type of precise responsiveness that only time can produce. A stunning example of the result is heard in the andante movement of the Tchaikovsky Symphony # 4, in which the tempo changes so constantly as to suggest a giant improvisation, but with every instrument in awesomely precise synchronization. Typically, though, while the effect is truly breathtaking, it smacks of virtuosity for its own sake and seems free of self-indulgence.

The Pearl sets present an integral collection of the 109 sides Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw cut for Columbia from 1926 to 1932. They capture both the conductor and the orchestra at the top of their form and are vastly superior to the later studio recordings for Telefunken (currently on a series of Teldec CDs).Willem Mengelberg The sonic quality is magnificent: rich, detailed and beautifully balanced. The alternate takes that comprise the sixth disc are fascinating proof that Mengelberg adopted a single fundamental view of each work, unlike other romantic conductors whose various performances of the same work differ considerably. While nearly every performance is excellent, the Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Weber and Liszt are particularly fine.

For those who want only the cream of the Columbias, the Tchaikovsky and Brahms pieces are also available on Claremont GSE 78-50-48/49 (2 CDs). To complete the portrait, though, two additional releases are essential. The first is an exquisite 1939 concert of the Symphony # 4 of Gustav Mahler, whom Mengelberg befriended and ardently championed (now on Philips CD 426 108-2). The other is arguably the finest Mengelberg recording of all: an absolutely staggering 1928 performance with the New York Philharmonic of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, which the composer dedicated to Mengelberg (on RCA 60929-2 with other legendary Strauss recordings by Beecham, Koussevitzky and Stokowski).

These performances are brilliant examples of the performing style of the last century. But within the chest of their creator may have beat the heart of a fascist.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1994 by Peter Gutmann

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