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Willem Mengelberg

Willem Mengelberg

Willem Mengelberg

For more information:

  • Brendan Wehrung's biography & discography
  • Fan page and incomplete chronological discography
  • Great Conductors On-Line
  • Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (English)

  • Posted to: rec.music.classical.recordings
    Subject: Mengelberg Recommendations
    Date: Thu, 20 Feb 1997

    Smuras wrote:

    I'm interested in recordings made by Mengelberg. Any special recommendations? I recently happened upon a Biddulph recording of a performance of Beethoven's 1st and 3rd symphonies; any thoughts on these performances?

    Mengelberg is definitely a personal taste; some listeners respond to his very personal, intense but extremely willful style, and others can't abide a note of what he does. I sit somewhere in between -- some of his work is sublime, while some of it tends to grate on me. There are also two major periods that I discern in his recorded output, one preceding World War II, mostly made by EMI and RCA, and the other during WW II (he was blacklisted by the Allies after WW II for a controversial naive complicity with the Nazi regime), mostly transcriptions from concert programs recorded by the Dutch radio. As noted, the studio efforts tend to be in better sound, with less distortion and compression, and his earlier recordings tend to be a bit less eccentric. They've found their way out to CD in a few different ways: the Dutch radio stuff has come out on CD on Philips (though I think these have been deleted from their catalog) and more recently on Teldec, and the prewar stuff has come out on a slew of British reissue labels (Symposium, Biddulph, Pearl) in addition to remasterings by EMI and RCA themselves. Because with Mengelberg, personal reaction plays a much bigger part than anything else, I'll limit myself to a few really special performances:

  • Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
    Strauss dedicated the work to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which Mengelberg built into a world-class ensemble. Oddly, the first recording that he made was with the New York Philharmonic (cheapest availability on a BMG 2-fer that includes other historic Strauss recordings), a 1928 disc that stands as a classic to this day. Still, I actually prefer a different Teldec disc that I've heard with Mengelberg working over his own Concertgebouw a bit more, though I don't know about current availability.

  • Mahler: Symphony #4
    It's weird, yes, it's really weird, and wayward, and utterly wonderful to hear. Arguably one of the finest Mahler recordings out there (and Mahler was a Mengelberg fan, too). May not be easy to find, these days, though (last seen by me on a Philips CD). Mengelberg also turned in a touching, relatively unsentimental recording of the Adagietto to #5, which is a prewar disc available in several incarnations.

  • Liszt: Les Preludes
    This is a prewar Concertgebouw recording for EMI which is really hair-raising, antique sound and all. Don't know about current CD availability, though.

  • Beethoven Symphonies
    Very variable; I can't abide his wartime 4th, can't help but snicker at the weird tempo shifts in the closing moments to his wartime 9th, and yet, there are some decent things out there. There was a Teldec disc with relatively straightforward performances of the 5th and 8th that I thought were pretty good.

    The Biddulph set contains prewar recordings of the 1st and 3rd symphonies. It's surprisingly lacking in willfulness, portamento, and the other Mengelberg trademarks. The Eroica, from 1930, is apparently also the first one to include the exposition repeat. They're decent performances, but left me hungering for the grab-you-by-the-lapels intensity of a Furtwaengler or Harnoncourt.

  • Schubert: Symphonies 8 and 9
    I have a Philips reissue of wartime performances of these two symphonies with the Concertgebouw. As with many of these discs, the set is hampered by poor sound, with unacceptably bad needle scrapes and skips in the "Unfinished." The 9th, though, is a gem: willful, to be sure, but also with plenty of soloistic orchestral personality and lots of charm. Desert island Mengelberg, and worth putting up with crappy 1940's sound.

  • Tchaikovsky Symphonies
    Many people are passionate devotees of Mengelberg's various recordings of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies. I recognize the excitement that he generates, but it strikes me as being more heat than light (for light *and* heat, I turn to Serge Koussevitzky, e.g.). Still, it's widely enough regarded that a Mengelberg newbie should at least give these recordings a listen.

  • Bartok: Violin Concerto #2
    Mengelberg conducted the premiere of the piece with violinist Zoltan Szekeley, and the premiere was recorded (issued at one point on a mid-priced Philips CD). It's wonderful.
  • I'll also warn against two performances that I've seen praised around here before: wartime performances of the St. Matthew Passion and the German Requiem. Both performances do have some exciting things in them, but they both have important cuts (the German Requiem in the great, "Herr du bist wuerdig" fugue; the St. Matthew cuts are a bit more savage). I'm also not crazy about the choral sound, but that reflects biases from my own singing.

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