Hänsel und Gretel Overture Mahler
Symphony No.5 Adagietto Strauss
Don Juan, Op.20 Wagner
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Prelude to Act 1
Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Siegfried Forest Murmurs
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded between 1926-1940
CD No: NAXOS 8.110855 Duration: Reviewed: April 2003
Willem Mengelberg Naxos Historical
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Naxos is to be congratulated on its Historical series. Too many people shy away from old recordings in fear of (they think) emaciated textures. Some dont appreciate the interpretative insights to be garnered from musicians of yesteryear. And they dont come more individual than Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), friend of Mahler and Strauss, and conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra for 50 years from 1895, and of the New York Philharmonic between 1923-28.
The precise blending of woodwinds, the dark bloom of the strings, the proud phrasing of the brass with violins dancing in tandem its all there to be heard; the spacious Concertgebouw acoustic easily discernible, and Mark Obert-Thorns transfer reduces mechanical interference WITHOUT harming musical tones. Its such a pleasure to NOT hear murky bass and pianissimo passages, to NOT hear winds sound as if played underwater, to NOT hear tonally-strangulated strings. If only more critics would be aware of no-noise (even 24-bit) faults and report them; there are engineers who dont seem to notice (or care) about the callous way they are disfiguring valuable material in their obsession with getting rid of every vestige of hiss, crackle and pop. The horrible CEDAR (or equivalent) process, which doesnt take any musical prisoners, seems just so easy (and cheap) to use. Who cares about the music!
Anyway, Obert-Thorn has done a grand job and with very little original-production impediment to worry the soft-ear brigade. One can appreciate the Tannhäuser overture in all its glory which is what I started talking about its starlit textures and surging power. Then theres Mengelbergs intervention delaying tactics, unnecessary rits, meaningless tenutos; but the final bars are gloriously uplifting. Of course, YOU might not find some of Mengelbergs ploys so annoying. Hes never less than interesting though. The use of portamento in Lohengrin Act 1 does sound strange, imposed, yet this was the style; maybe Wagner would find the virtual non-existence of portamento today equally bewildering. There are some gorgeous things in the Mastersingers prelude, which is the latest recording here, from 1940.
The New York Forest Murmurs (from 1928, Carnegie Hall) gleams and dovetails with effortless precision, while Wagners one-time assistant Engelbert Humperdincks Hänsel overture is given the close proximity of New Yorks Liederkranz Hall (1930) for a buoyant and sometimes swoony rendition that reports American vitality.
The Amsterdam Don Juan (1938) is more deliberate than its 16-minute duration would suggest. Apart from proving how unreliable timings can be, Mengelbergs close association with the composer gives his nip-and-tuck traversal validity while marking him down as a one-off interpreter the love music has ardour, the whole is remarkably integrated; Mengelberg was a very scrupulous musician. I finished the performance, the closing bars superbly timed, convinced this is a great performance.
Finally, a touchstone version of Mahlers (in)famous Adagietto. At just 7 minutes, Mengelberg surely gets us closer to what Mahler intended, an intimate love-letter to Alma (Mahler née Schindler) that would act as an interlude within the vast movements of his Fifth Symphony.Here, in 1926, Mengelberg lets the music unfold naturally and sweetly, strings slide of course, and the result is unaffected and moving and alone worth the price of the CD, which might be inexpensive but doesnt sound it!