About this Recording
8.110853 - WEBER / BERLIOZ: Overtures / LISZT: Les Preludes (Mengelberg) (1928-1942)

Mengelberg • Weber / Mendelssohn / Berlioz / Liszt

This programme of shorter pieces bears witness to a lost tradition in several guises, most patently the special creative rapport born of a long-term relationship between conductor and orchestra, but also the works themselves and more particularly the distinctive style and continuity of heritage with which they are communicated. Although no strangers to the contemporary recording studio, with the exception of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, none of them are now the staple diet of the concert repertoire they once were. In an age dominated by high-profile marketing of musical personality cults, slavish adherence to the letter of the score, and concert programmes tailor-made to egocentric specialities of a performer or safe concerto/symphony juxtapositions (with overtures an increasingly rare event), these burgeoning early Romantic essays have lost much of their high ground. This is, of course, a sad indictment of unadventurous contemporary programme-planning, which makes this close encounter with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw a salutary example of waking the dead to vivid and memorable effect, with some of the most instructive ghosts of quality music-making past.

The key to these early Romantic works lies in the subtlety and innovation of their programmatic experimentation. Had Weber lived longer, Berlioz and Liszt would have been much in contention with a rival pioneer and iconoclast. Like the two longer-lived composers, his relatively small output, notably the operas, had a significant influence upon Wagner. The graphic elements of the music are more implicit and the emotional tenor more contained than they were to become in subsequent decades. The music invites a variety of characterization and personal response from its interpreters that sits uneasily with the more standardised or supposed historically correct readings given more general currency today. A comparison between Mengelberg and any of his great contemporaries in the same repertoire brings an immediate realisation that they all have something quite different to say about this repertoire that is equally valid and interesting. The spectrum of interpretative range and vision is broader, the added spontaneity quite remarkable.

What is it that makes these conducting dinosaurs so special? The very opening of the overture to Der Freischütz offers prime evidence. Mengelberg and the orchestra are alert to every nuance of the freshly minted scene painting. A sense of wonder and adventure is palpably unveiled as an invitation to listen to a story in the hands of a master narrator. The historic sonic reportage does little to compromise the wide dynamic range achieved by the players themselves. The depth, intensity and tonal weight of the extended crescendos and the snarling timbre of the trombones beneath the proud horn fanfares convey tension and colour, all voiced with Mengelberg’s intuitively flexible rubato. After the launch of the most impetuous allegro, only extended, patient rehearsal could have achieved the eloquent articulation of the violins’ questioning theme answered with such beguiling elegance and reassurance by the solo clarinet. The coda’s subsequent transformation of this very same material asserts itself with inescapable musical logic as well as ringing jubilation.

Further examples abound. Try the magical opening woodland scene setting of Oberon, where the improvisatory freedom of the fluttering woodwind entry after the dreamily expectant horn solo creates a once heard, never forgotten brushstroke of fantasy. Then consider the unanimity of ensemble and articulation required to create it. Just one tiny phrase to pinpoint the whole aura of the introduction, realised in a way that is as onomatopoeic as anything in Mendelssohn’s or Benjamin Britten’s evocations of the same scenario. Note too, how Mengelberg’s delicately nuanced accents and sprung rhythms lend Mendelssohn’s fairies an ebullient, but slightly mischievous edge. This is the conductor as film director.

The supernatural overtones darken considerably in the excerpts from The Damnation of Faust. Mengelberg relishes the eccentricities and bizarre colour of Berlioz’s instrumentation to highlight unequivocally the latent malevolence of the Will-o’-the-Wisps and the Sylphs. Similarly in the Hungarian March, he precipitates a headlong momentum that is relentless and possessed of an incipient terror that pertinently aligns it with the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie fantastique. From the very outset, pizzicato strings hector the woodwinds’ melodic exposition with a stinging unruliness that apes the distinctive spread chord technique so beloved of Liszt and the Romantic pianists. An uncompromising underlying menace to the central development leads to the flamboyant swagger of the march in full spate, with balefully hollow, soft bass-drum strokes unerringly caught to threatening effect.

Les Préludes is perhaps the jewel in the crown. The blatancy of Liszt’s idiom will probably continue to be denigrated for all time, but heart-on-the-sleeve emotion combined with Gothic splendour is a gift to a conductor of Mengelberg’s theatrical sensibilities and flair. He seizes upon these elements as being the essence of the music to whiplash effect. Control of tempo, pacing and dynamics is masterly and pushes the full gamut of tension, relaxation and release to dangerous extremes. This is interpretative risk-taking par excellence matched to the hilt by a genuinely intoxicating orchestral response, an adrenal chemistry and collective galvanisation to be spoken of in the same breath

as other celebrated long-term partnerships of the

time — Stokowski/Philadelphia, Koussevitsky/Boston, Toscanini/New York, and Furtwängler/ Berlin.

Ian Julier

Producer’s Note

The present recordings pose a number of challenges to the transfer engineer. The 1928-31 sides were taken from pre-war laminated U.S. Columbia discs. Although they were pressed using quiet shellac, the 1928-29 sides tend to have some rumble during the quiet opening passages which could not be entirely removed without gutting the bass frequencies, while the 1931 recordings tend to have surface swish. In common with other 1937 Telefunken recordings (e.g. Mengelberg’s first Tchaikovsky Pathétique), the Roman Carnival has a low-frequency hum, which again could not be entirely taken out without compromising the bass. The 1942 Faust excerpts are the most successful in terms of tonal fidelity; yet even these are hampered by the crackly shellac pressings used by Telefunken.

For these transfers, I have drawn upon pre-war American Columbia copies ("Viva-Tonal", "Full-Range" and "Microphone" label editions) for the Weber and Liszt selections; a laminated English Columbia for the favoured second take of the Mendelssohn; and German Telefunkens for the remaining items.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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 acoustic 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.

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