About this Recording
8.110864 - BEETHOVEN / SCHUBERT: Overtures (Mengelberg) (1927-1942)
English 

Great Conductors: Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)

Great Conductors: Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)

Beethoven: Overtures • The Creatures of Prometheus • The Ruins of Athens

SCHUBERT: Marche militaire • Rosamunde Overture

 

Together with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Beethoven is one of the best-documented composers from Mengelberg’s extensive repertoire. Recordings of all the symphonies are extant in a combination of live broadcast and commercial releases, as well as in alternative versions and with several orchestras. Most feature the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, with which Mengelberg was associated for nearly half a century, from 1895 through to the wartime difficulties that were ultimately to undermine his career in 1944.

 

Concert programmes from the early part of the twentieth century were much broader in range than nowadays, when overtures and incidental music, even by Beethoven, have become much rarer fare. The 1930/31 Columbia recordings of Coriolan, Leonore Overtures No. 1 and No.3 and Egmont are of particular value in this collection. Mengelberg had recently returned from New York, where he had become embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious conflict with Toscanini and a manipulative orchestral management regarding the future of what ultimately became the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Never comfortable with artistic politics and effectively sidelined from decision-making policies in his American post, the Dutchman rose above the situation to view his European homecoming as a renewal of endeavour and commitment to the orchestra that always remained closest to his heart as very much his own personal instrument.

 

These particular performances amply demonstrate that the feelings were reciprocal. The conductor’s renowned fastidious rehearsal technique is married to orchestral execution that is both consummately disciplined and spontaneously impassioned. In the past, much has been made of Mengelberg’s alterations to the score and flagrant romanticising of many of the works he conducted. On the evidence of these overtures this would appear to be a canard of received opinion being somewhat wide of the mark. Each work assumes a specific character appropriate to its dramatic subtext. Not in an overtly programmatic sense, or with any self-regard on the part of the conductor, but with an interpretative focus honed with plain-speaking, classical directness that sharpens a response to the boldness and coherence of the composer’s inspiration.

 

One of the greatest assets of Mengelberg’s technique was his ability to give the players flexibility and freedom in performance beyond the context of such rigorous preparation. Detail is meticulous and consistently observed. Matters of balance, phrasing, dynamics and tempo are scrupulously attended to, but with a natural expressive force never at odds with overall line and structure. Take the notoriously difficult thematic contribution from the woodwind shortly after the launch of the coda to Leonore No.3. After incandescent strings, Mengelberg cuts them right back, together with the accompanying brass, to allow the wind to take centre stage and generate a seamless progression at precisely the same dynamic level as the preceding thematic material. Unaffected by any historical correctness or ostentation for its own sake, he demonstrates masterly control of orchestral balance to service the music to best advantage at white heat.

 

For turbulent, destructive passion, Mengelberg’s Coriolan assumes its place as a progenitor of Schumann’s Manfred and Brahms’s Tragic Overtures. A brusque and hectoring character beset by a notably forlorn lyricism is achieved by trenchant rhythmic control reinforced by punchy accents and soulful portamento-laden phrasing that wring the utmost distress and tragedy from the music without any exaggerated protest. In Egmont, the reverse side of the temperamental coin propels a headlong rush to victory. Here rhythms are sprung with a nervous energy that is transformed into almost obsessive assurance in the coda.

 

The earliest recording of all, the second movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, demonstrates how, even at this stage, the Columbia engineers were adroit at capturing the acoustic of the Concertgebouw itself. Conductor and orchestra were past-masters at playing off its distinctive resonance and the comparison between the pre-war and later Telefunken recordings is invariably in Columbia’s favour, especially when registering the full bloom of larger climaxes. A complete live performance of the symphony from some ten years later is uncannily similar, but in some ways the wit and acerbity of the composer’s humour are captured with even more nonchalance for being taken out of context almost as an encore. To be treated to some of the additional numbers from the incidental music to The Creatures of Prometheus rather than just the celebrated overture is yet another sign of the times. Mengelberg generates sustained crescendos that would do Rossini proud, and the off-cuts from the Eroica’s finale variations are artfully inventive.

 

By 1942, however, the Nazi occupation had cast a shadow over Dutch orchestral life. Many of the non-Aryan members of the Concertgebouw had been removed. Fears and tensions ran high, producing hints of constraint and severity in the quality of playing. Nevertheless there is no overtly martial rigour in either the Beethoven or Schubert Marches, which swagger past as droll and buoyant as ever. Recorded by Telefunken before these troubled times, the bucolic pleasures of the Rosamunde Overture also resound with rousing energy, the characteristically dark-toned trombones lending a rasping edge to the full orchestral sound.

 

Mengelberg’s final years are a sad and tragic tale. Like many who did not leave the European mainland in the Second World War, he made considerable covert efforts against the odds to protect fellow musicians and maintain artistic freedoms as best he could, but by continuing to conduct widely in territories under Nazi occupation, he became tainted, ready to become a very public scapegoat. Immediately after the war, his honours were summarily removed by the Dutch Crown, followed by the withdrawal of his passport and the imposition of a ban on his conducting by the Dutch government. He retreated ignominiously to exile in Switzerland until his death on 22nd March 1951. As Furtwängler survived and Karajan flourished in the advent of the post-war era of long-playing records, the world was deprived of a potentially fascinating Indian Summer from one of the greatest of all conducting geniuses.

 

Ian Julier

 

 

Mark Obert-Thorn

 

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s 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.

 

 

Producer’s Note

 

The Columbia recordings were transferred from a number of different American pressings (“Viva-Tonal” label, “Royal Blue” shellac, “Full-Range” and “Microphone” labels), with the first side of Leonore No. 1 coming from a laminated British pressing. The single movement from the Beethoven Eighth Symphony was the filler side for Mengelberg’s recording of Cherubini’s Anacreon Overture.

            Except for the Rosamunde Overture (taken from a German pressing), the Telefunken recordings come from dubbed sources. The Creatures of Prometheus excerpts were only ever issued on the American Capitol label in dubbings taken from the original matrices. (I have transferred these, along with the ultra-rare wartime Ruins of Athens march, from the early 1950s Capitol LP issue.) The Schubert Marche militaire was only released on 78s in a relatively noisy dubbed version.

 

Mark Obert-Thorn


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