Hänsel und Gretel Overture
Symphony No.5 Adagietto
Don Juan, Op.20
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
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: NAXOS 8.110855
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 don’t appreciate the interpretative insights to be garnered from musicians of yesteryear. And they don’t 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 – it’s all there to be heard; the spacious Concertgebouw acoustic easily discernible, and Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer reduces mechanical interference WITHOUT harming musical tones. It’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 there’s Mengelberg’s intervention – delaying tactics, unnecessary rits, meaningless tenutos; but the final bars are gloriously uplifting. Of course, YOU might not find some of Mengelberg’s ploys so annoying. He’s 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 Wagner’s one-time assistant Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel overture is given the close proximity of New York’s 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, Mengelberg’s 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 Mahler’s (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 doesn’t sound it!