Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was conductor of the Amsterdam-based Concertgebouw Orchestra for 50 years from 1895. He was also the Conductor of the New York Philharmonic between 1921-9
Reviewed by: Bill Newman
Reviewed: February 2003
CD No: ANDANTE 2966 (3 CDs)
I don’t entirely see him as a virtuoso conductor. Other commentators appear to be in love with the description “virtuosic”, which covers a multitude of sins. Mengelberg reached the heart of his profession by delving deeply into the significance of the printed note, phrase and correct style of the pieces performed. A veritable collection of best-sellers is paraded on these three CDs.
Berlioz’s Rakoczy March (The Damnation of Faust; recorded 1942) is pointedly felt throughout each repetition of its dotted, main subject. On video, the conductor ’dances’ up and down in delighted manner to bring out the dry French humour and the satire, which still sounds freshly-minted in this Telefunken recording. Try and emulate the wonderfully controlled string lines, with the crescendo deliberately held back until the harmonisation clash in the central episode of Wagner’s Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude (1927), and you have a fair idea of the maestro’s power over the players.
From 1927 through to 1930 must have been glorious years for Amsterdam music lovers, and the next year in sequence (1928) saw the release of what is still the greatest version on disc of Liszt’s Les préludes. The banality, nobility and overall singing style is measured out to perfection, never subjected to the sentimental slush or classical preciseness of Ormandy or Weingartner, but instead searching for new touches contained in the Romantic spectrum.
Two overtures, Suppé’s Poet and Peasant (1932) and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (1940) show his theatrical grasp that must have been evinced time and time again in concerts, while music by his two countrymen – Cornelis Dopper’s Ciacona gotica and Six Old Netherlands Dances by Julius Röntgen (both 1940) – have a commanding respect for his countrymen’s creations. The Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings (1938) and the overture to Gluck’s Alceste (1935) both possess humility of gesture, far in advance of what other conductors find in them.
I am slightly mystified by the 1940 Eroica. Mengelberg misses out the first movement repeat that he had observed in his 1930 New York recording. The ’straightforward’ pulse that he steers through the symphony, when compared with the New York version and a live wartime Concertgebouw interpretation, suggests these other recordings as superior.
No other conductor comes remotely near Mengelberg in Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (1930). The very start suggests venerable old men carousing about the importance of days gone by, and the tender middle part and rousing finale are a class apart. Eight years on, Schubert’s Rosamunde overture catches the Viennese serenade literally on the wing.
The Tchaikovsky programme on the third CD is impeccable. Symphony No.5 (excepting the small cut in the Finale – which was approved by the composer’s brother, Modest), eclipses both Stokowski and Koussevitzky in this still magnificent 1928 recording, while Romeo and Juliet and 1812 Overture (1930/40) splice the mainbrace under the urgency of breathtaking pulsation and historic remembrances. Ten years apart, the great man had lost none of his beguiling powers during this decade.
Andante is to be congratulated on the good transfers.