About this Recording
8.110161 - STRAUSS, R.: Heldenleben (Ein) / Tod und Verklärung (Mengelberg) (1941-1942)

Richard Strauss – Ein Heldenleben/Tod und Verklärung

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg

Willem Mengelberg was only 24 when he became music director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1895. Famous for establishing a long tradition of Palm Sunday performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at a time when the work’s status was far from established, he also championed Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss from the very start of his tenure.

Mengelberg’s 25th anniversary at the helm of the orchestra in 1920 was marked by a historic and groundbreaking Mahler cycle. Without his advocacy in a great musical centre at the opposite European pole to Vienna as well as in the USA, the seeds of the great global Mahler revival witnessed in the latter half of the twentieth century would have been considerably slower to germinate. It can surely be no coincidence that Bernard Haitink, another Dutch-born long-term maestro of this great orchestra, has substantially consolidated and developed this tradition to become a leading light of Mahler and Strauss interpretation in our own time.

Shortly after taking over at the Concertgebouw, Mengelberg invited both composers to Amsterdam to conduct their own works and Strauss was quick to acknowledge both conductor and orchestra with the dedication of his latest tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, completed in 1898. Strauss himself conducted the première the following year in Frankfurt, where Mengelberg went on to conduct a celebrated series of Museum Concerts between 1907 and 1920. The first complete recording was produced in the acoustic era in the early 1920s with the Charlottenberg Opera Orchestra of Berlin conducted by Eduard Mörike – no mean feat given the scale of the work and the technological limitations. Although the composer also recorded the work with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in 1926 within a year of the introduction of the electrical recording process, it was Mengelberg’s pioneering 1928 recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic that did so much to further the work’s reputation.

Taking a long-drawn cue from Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique and just pre-empting the finale of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Strauss for the first time dresses his music in overtly autobiographical garb. The composer’s own recording signally and almost single-mindedly resists any flamboyance or self-assertion, rather paradoxically dropping a veil of self-imposed anonymity to mask the personal associations. As an almost exact contemporary, Mengelberg had met both Strauss and his wife Pauline. He was also well versed in the sniping of the critical body so wickedly lampooned in the work itself. This level of direct contact unquestionably lends special insight and revelatory breadth to the imagination, variety and subtlety of the musical characterisation so vital to the work’s demeanour and success.

On a broader but equally pertinent perspective, Mengelberg demonstrates comprehensive identification with the heroic values and old-world chivalry that colour Strauss’s highly idealised scenario. It is certainly instructive to hear his avoidance of blatant battery and mere volume in the notorious battle scene. So many later exponents forget that Strauss’s very different bringer of war predates Holst’s Mars by some 15 years and Shostakovich’s side drum-led assault on Leningrad in his Seventh Symphony was awaiting concurrence with Mengelberg’s own wartime forays fulfilling his Telefunken contract.

Mengelberg held a chief conducting post with the New York orchestra between 1922 and 1930, sharing the last three years with Toscanini. Comparisons between the New York and later Concertgebouw recordings of Ein Heldenleben are fascinating. The wartime recording may strike a more aggressive stance that betrays some of the more forceful and idiosyncratic aspects of Mengelberg’s famously meticulous style as well as possibly reflecting some of the tensions of troubled contemporary circumstances. But the more refined and less conspicuously virtuosic orchestral playing together with penetrating interpretative values still resound with a lifetime’s association and experience. Although infamous in other repertoire for changing the composer’s dynamics, phrasing and instrumentation, there is little evidence of such intervention here. There is certainly no duplication of the timpani stroke added by Toscanini at the very start of the curtailed repeat of the allegro molto agitato section that leads to the extinction of life in Tod und Verklärung.

The opening presentation of the hero is valiantly propelled towards the hectoring critics and the challenging ministrations of his helpmate before subsiding into nuptial rapture. Following an awesome coup de grace to clinch the battle, the most lucid revelation of the thematic cross-referencing of the works of peace leads to a final trouncing of his adversaries and an especially heart-warming withdrawal from life’s tribulations. Ein Heldenleben clearly remained a work with which both Mengelberg and the Amsterdam orchestra enjoyed a very special relationship.

Idealism also features prominently, albeit in more abstract guise, in Strauss’s earlier tone poem Tod und Verklärung. Recorded during bleak wartime in 1942, Mengelberg starkly juxtaposes the remembrances of life’s exuberance with the final death struggle, virtually punching the final breath from the doomed soul before progressing to a transfiguration that speaks more of barely-contained desperation than unalloyed bliss. The all-engulfing radiance of Stokowski’s celebrated 1934 Philadelphia recording sounds by contrast as though from another world. Mengelberg offers meagre consolation, more a witheringly poignant and pained knell of regret for better times past. To conduct this of all works at this particular historical juncture, with the orchestra subjected to the systematic removal of its Jewish personnel, must have induced a terrible resonance in all involved.

Mengelberg retained his post at the Concertgebouw until 1945. But despite testimonials from some long-standing friends and colleagues, his wartime affiliations with the occupying Nazi forces together with the acceptance of major conducting engagements with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras led to his dismissal. He lived in retirement in Switzerland until his death in 1951. A sad ending to an illustrious career that in earlier and happier days had in many ways mirrored the enterprise and ideals of Strauss’s hero.

Ian Julier

03 September 2001

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