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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Overtures / STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan (Mengelberg) (1926-1940)
By Mortimer H. Frank
Mengelberg: Wagner Mahler R. Strauss HumperdinckSpanning fourteen years from 1926 to 1940, this selection of Wagnerian repertoire, recorded on both sides of the Atlantic with the two orchestras with which Mengelberg was most associated, offers an intriguing insight into differences and changes of orchestral style as well as some benchmark examples of the results of his meticulous rehearsal technique from a period when he was at the peak of his powers and before his career was occluded by the events during and following the Second World War.
Mengelberg had been at the helm of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1895, establishing one of the most enduring and productive orchestral partnerships of the last century. Together with many European conductors of his generation he was lured by the burgeoning orchestral expansion in the United States, securing the post of principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1923. The transformation in the orchestras technique and interpretative response was swift and critically admired, but the essentially peripatetic nature of Mengelbergs involvement never really matched the sustained commitment brought to the Amsterdam orchestra. In the later 1920s he became embroiled in the machinations of the management as a pawn in the rival American ambitions of Furtwängler and Toscanini. His last seasons in New York after Furtwängler returned to Europe were uneasily shared with Toscanini. When the Maestro was given the responsibility for selecting the players who would enhance the status of the Philharmonic following the amalgamation with its rival New York Symphony Orchestra in 1928, the writing was on the wall and Mengelberg returned to Europe, somewhat battered and bruised from the competitive intrigues of New World cultural politics.
Little of these trials and tribulations can be discerned in Mengelbergs swansong New York recording of Humperdincks Hänsel und Gretel Overture however. Earlier 1928 recordings of Webers Oberon Overture and Mendelssohns Scherzo from A Midsummer Nights Dream with the Concertgebouw (Naxos 8.110853) had already demonstrated a special affinity with the Teutonic take on fairyland fantasy. Mengelberg takes no hostages to Wagnerian fortune with the quicksilver delicacy and open-eyed innocence deployed in this winsome performance.
The graphic reportage in Strausss Don Juan is no less detailed. Mengelberg enjoyed especially close relationships with Mahler and Richard Strauss, and famously won the dedication together with the Amsterdam orchestra of Ein Heldenleben. His flexibility of tempo and expressive nuance could hardly be more pliant or vocal in underlining the potent contrasts of the tone poems strikingly visual scenario. The Dons zest for life and love resounds with abundant vigour and intoxication, all the more enriched in the face of the grim finality that Mengelberg brings to the shuddering extinction of the closing pages.
Mengelbergs support of Mahler was evangelical. He prepared the Amsterdam orchestra for Mahlers own first performances with them in 1903 and in 1920 celebrated his 25th anniversary season with a complete symphony cycle. Length, complexity and cost militated against Mahler recordings in the 78rpm era and it is a source of considerable frustration that the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony is the sole commercially-recorded example of Mengelbergs Mahler. The point of direct contact between conductor and composer allied to a recording date barely 25 years after the symphony was composed lend unique insights. The extremes of portamento in the string playing may strike the modern listener as potentially unseaworthy, but once over the initial shock, the combination of devotion and passion at a forward-moving basic tempo leaves no doubt that this is a love song rather than a requiem.
In fact, these recordings chart a fascinating transition and comparison between European and American playing styles in the use of portamento string technique. The 1926 Mahler recording represents an extreme example. It was a long established expressive feature in Europe still much in evidence in the high-lying violin passages of the Lohengrin Prelude also recorded in Amsterdam the following year, but across the Atlantic for the 1928 sessions of the Siegfried Forest Murmurs, the New York team shows much less inclination to deploy the device in similar material. Attention is compelled more by the freedom and sophistication of the woodwind players against a sustained shimmering string accompaniment, with the leaders solo violin much more restrained than in Europe at the time. Come the 1932 Tannhäuser Overture, a decline in its use is very apparent and by 1940, only residual vestiges remain in the Meistersinger Prelude.
Mengelbergs Wagner is distinctive for mobility and vision. Unlike the relatively plain-speaking Karl Muck and Felix Weingartner, he constantly reminds us that this is the stuff of music drama not the concert hall. Unlike some of his other contemporaries, however, the passion is not indulged or overheated. The Meistersinger Prelude is a heraldic paean, joyous, confident and bristlingly alive with contrapuntal detail, even to the perfectly balanced audibility of the tuba trill in the bass line statement of the main theme leading to the coda. Similarly in the Tannhäuser Overture, the unanimity of ensemble in the teeming string figurations that accompany the closing chorale allows their fevered intensity to pose a real challenge to the hymn, such that Venus gives Wartburg more than a run for its ultimate victory. Note too at that moment of enduring thrilling expectation when the horns rise above the rest of the closing brass tumult, Mengelberg not only launches the initial flourish with ringing prominence, but encourages his players to sustain the counterpoint audibly through the whole phrase to generate even greater tension.
This level of excellence was not easily achieved. Mengelbergs conducting scores were copiously and scrupulously annotated, but in essence still remained templates. It is in the consistent transformation of such close preparation into the spontaneity of the dangerous, risk-taking performances heard in this compilation that the mark of his true greatness lies.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially-released restorations.
The recordings on this disc span fourteen years, feature two orchestras on two different continents in three venues, and were originally made by three record companies. Some disparity in sound is therefore to be expected, particularly between the rather faint Mahler recording of 1926 and the comparatively hi-fi Meistersinger Prelude of 1940.
Save for two rather primitive early electrical recordings (the Flying Dutchman Overture and the Ride of the Valkyries which the conductor made in New York in 1925/6), this disc features all of Mengelbergs recorded Wagner repertoire. The original sound of the Tannhäuser Overture is over-reverberant and rather opaque, with a tendency to distort in loud passages even on the best pressings (such as the Royal Blue American Columbias used for this transfer) which I have attempted to ameliorate through filtering. The Lohengrin Prelude never appeared on quiet U.S. Columbia discs, and some fuzziness at the climax is unavoidable on laminated English copies like the one heard here. Telefunken afforded Mengelberg his best recorded sound on commercial 78s yet, that labels pressings were often quite noisy. Don Juan comes from German shellacs, while the Meistersinger Prelude was transferred from a Swedish Telestar issue.
The two New York sides came from quiet pre-war Victor copies, a Gold label disc for the Siegfried excerpt and a Z pressing for the Humperdinck, the last recording Mengelberg made in America. Finally, the Adagietto (the conductors only commercial recording of Mahler) was one of Mengelbergs first efforts on disc with the Concertgebouw. The originals are rather dim sounding, and never came out on really quiet pressings (the copy used here is a laminated English Columbia). In addition, it suffers from severe pitch instability, which I have tried to correct in the present transfer.
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WAGNER, R.: Overtures / STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan (Men...