About this Recording
8.110164 - BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Mengelberg) (1930-1941)

Mengelberg • Brahms - Vol. 2
Symphony No. 3 • Symphony No. 1 (Third Movement)
Academic Festival Overture • Tragic Overture, Op. 81

The Columbia Brahms recordings presented here were recorded at the time when Mengelberg had just relinquished his post as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Having divided his time between the United States and Europe since 1921, he became enmeshed in the power struggle between Toscanini and Furtwängler. After three final seasons shared with The Maestro at the Philharmonic in New York in the late 1920s, Mengelberg returned to Europe after Furtwängler, somewhat battered and bruised from the competitive intrigues of New World cultural politics.

Mengelberg had been at the helm of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1895, and had never ceased to put that orchestra at the forefront of his priorities. Representing one of the longest enduring European orchestral partnerships of the last century, his care and attention to detail at rehearsal combined with flamboyant platform charisma were legendary. After the trials and tribulations of the experience in New York, both conductor and orchestra would have viewed this particular time as one of homecoming and a renewal of artistic aspiration A more affirmative and zestful confirmation of solidarity would certainly be harder to find than this exhilarating performance of the Academic Festival Overture. From the very opening furtive tread, it bristles with expectancy, building an impressively extended dynamic range before releasing the most ebullient outpouring of melody and vigour that pre-empts an almost Elgarian heraldic swagger and élan.

Having a fourth side at his disposal on the original 78 rpm release of the overture, Mengelberg somewhat curiously chose the third movement of the First Symphony as a fill-up. Frustratingly, he never made a commercial recording of the complete symphony, although there are several live performances in circulation to give a flavour of the special qualities of his reading. The movement is particularly noteworthy for its realisation of the prime role taken by the woodwind throughout, both as soloists and as an ensemble in dialogue with the strings. The piquancy and tone of the players is markedly distinctive, as is the pecking emphasis drawn from them in the central section’s little repeated figures. Wholly characteristic too is that this never sounds mannered or attention seeking, but totally in keeping with the natural articulacy of Mengelberg’s interpretative response.

Brahms’ Third Symphony has long been viewed as the Cinderella of the four. Although overtly cyclic in thematic unity, it is especially difficult to conjure a truly satisfying conclusion from the unexpectedly quiet coda to the finale. Many interpreters notably push the autumnal context into nostalgic, even extinctive regions that only increase the music’s potential inconclusiveness and ambiguity. Another subsequent Elgarian parallel is perhaps pertinent here; specifically the coda to the finale of his Second Symphony, where after a similar coursing of a river of preceding drama,

the elusive Spirit of Delight theme emerges for one last time in full flower to cap the work with a sense of deep-seated contentment. At the close, Mengelberg leads us with masterly and inventive transition to an open-hearted blossoming of seasonal glory and ultimate withdrawal to a similar world of warmth and repose. True climactic fulfilment is sustained with rarely encountered full-throated generosity of spirit. This is only one of many signal achievements of a performance that remains consistently challenging in its flexibility and diversity of expressive imagery. With less emphasis on the serious-minded, but wholly valid tragedy and solemnity that Furtwängler brought to the work for example, Mengelberg convincingly has his sights set on the finale coda from the outset. Phrasing, tempi and dynamics expand and contract within each movement with a spontaneity and creative energy that are more allusive of the natural world than the epic drama of any potential literary subtexts.

The first movement, complete with a cunningly deft instigation of the exposition repeat, successfully marries passion with the composer’s specified brio, while the second movement may surprise with the torrential fervour of its extended accelerando towards the central climax. Mengelberg is some two and a half minutes shorter in this movement than Furtwängler’s live 1949 account with the Berlin Philharmonic and it is fascinating to hear the Dutchman’s almost Wagnerian abandon in contrast with Germanic inner communing and palpably sad grandeur. The following poco allegretto moves fluently but voiced full of yearning, emphasized by magical sequences of brief tenutos that tease the tops of phrases. The recording engagingly captures the musicians playing off the wonderful acoustic of the Concertgebouw in the recapitulation, when the solo horn is atmospherically supported by the most delicate murmuring string accompaniment. The soft rasp of the trombones in the chorale that ushers in the main forte of the finale is another reminder of the orchestra’s burnished timbres. More than most interpreters, Mengelberg is attentive to precisely these colours and tones in so many aspects of the work to articulate the music almost as a symphony of seasonal variety.

To then enter the world of the Tragic Overture comes as something of a shock. Recorded in wartime, when orchestral personnel were under threat of removal by the occupying Nazi forces, it is a stark reminder of reality. Mengelberg’s traversal is brimful of unease and off-beam structural fragmentation that in its unconventional mood-painting and wilful tempo relationships is more akin to a Liszt symphonic poem than the concentrated Beethovenian rhythmic implacability and whiplash impulse that Toscanini famously brought to the work in a pre-war BBC recording. The dark recesses of the work have rarely been so vehemently and unsettlingly explored. As in the earlier, happier recordings however, the unanimity of expressive conviction communicated to the orchestra by the conductor and reciprocated to the listener remains music-making of an order rarely encountered in Brahms performance of this or any other day.

Ian Julier
Producer’s Note

Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam made their first records for English Columbia in 1926. This association, which lasted for six years, produced over one hundred sides, all of which are eagerly sought by orchestral record collectors. The 1926 discs are somewhat distant and also suffer from noticeable pitch instability. Columbia engineers quickly modified their microphone placement with significant improvement in clarity and brilliance. Apparently, the pitch problem proved to be more difficult to solve as it continued to plague a few of the later recordings, for example Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Brahms’s Third Symphony and Academic Festival Overture, presented here, are among the finest of Columbia’s efforts. The orchestral balance is natural and the pitch remains constant throughout. I have used American Columbia pressings for these transfers since they yield excellent sound and quieter surfaces than their European counterparts.

From 1937 until 1943, Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra recorded exclusively for the German Telefunken Company. During these years, Telefunken had become a great pioneer in audio research and development. Consequently, their recordings are remarkable for their sonic superiority. Unfortunately, Telefunken pressed their discs on noisy shellac, which creates a major challenge for the remastering engineer. Using a judicious application of Cedar technology, I have attempted to reduce the background noise without compromising Telefunken’s original sound.

Ward Marston

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