By Jonathan Summers Curator, Classical Music
Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was one of the greatest conductors of the first half of the twentieth century. A friend of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Mengelberg championed their works with his expertly disciplined orchestra, the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam. As their chief conductor, which he became at the age of twenty four, he reigned supreme from 1895 to 1945 creating one of the finest orchestras in the world. His success was so great that he was also appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1920s.
It is 150 years ago this year that Mengelberg was born, so why is his name so little known today? When EMI/IMG produced their CD series ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ in 2002, some forty conductors were represented on sets of two CDs, but not Mengelberg. Could it be due to the fact that Mengelberg stayed in Holland at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when the country was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War? Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted for the Nazis in Germany, yet his complete studio recordings have just been released again by Warner Classics. Mengelberg’s Columbia and Telefunken recordings have not been systematically re-issued by the companies who own them. Could it be that Mengelberg’s style of conducting is out of fashion at the moment? It took a recent letter from the music librarian of the Barbican Music Library to prompt Gramophone magazine to publish a short article this month on Mengelberg and his recordings. There is, however, a definitive 1300 page two volume biography of the conductor by Frits Zwart, recently translated into English, published by Amsterdam University Press.
One only has to hear Mengelberg’s studio recordings or broadcasts to realise that here is a conductor that galvanized his orchestra to give their all - and more. Mengelberg, like Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, knew that an orchestra is an army of musicians that need commanding in order to get the best out of them; the conductor is the general in charge, the orchestra his troops. Mengelberg had strongly held convictions about the way a work should be interpreted, even ‘improving’ upon the composer’s directions and sometimes, the orchestration.
Studio recordings of ‘Les Preludes’ by Liszt, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ Overture amply reveal this. Many of Mengelberg's performances have intense emotional impact, refined orchestral playing of the highest order, and, in certain repertoire, a flexibility of tempo and line that makes the music sound organic - as if it is living and breathing.
The recordings have value on many levels today. His close relationship with Gustav Mahler gives authority to his interpretations of the composer’s music. A live broadcast from 1939 of the Symphony No. 4 has a genuine freshness about it while the tempo he takes for the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony makes one realise that this movement has got slower and slower over the decades, particularly since it was used in the Visconti film ‘Death in Venice.’ Mengelberg wrote on his score that Mahler told him that it was a love letter to his wife Alma and that is what the movement represented.
Composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was so impressed with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that he dedicated one of his major tone poems – ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (a Hero’s Life) – to the conductor and orchestra. Mengelberg’s 1928 recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is still regarded by critics and musicians as one of the best, more than 90 years after it was recorded.
While Mengelberg spent the Second World War in Holland, some of his concerts were broadcast by the Dutch broadcasting system AVRO (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) by whom they were recorded and archived. It is therefore possible to hear some of these concerts which have been released on CD by various labels. Unfortunately, the BBC did not record and archive broadcasts at this time, but the British Library Sound Archive holds the collection of Kenneth Leech, an engineer who recorded at home on a disc cutting machine from 1936 onwards. Although Mengelberg had performed in London previously, it was in 1936 that he was invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, and Mr Leech captured extracts from the broadcast of the 4th November 1936 concert.
The concert, which included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by English pianist Myra Hess and ‘Ein Heldenleben’ by Richard Strauss was to take place at the Queen’s Hall, and Mengelberg and his party stayed in the Langham Hotel opposite. Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, took Mengelberg to the BBC’s studios at Maida Vale for the first rehearsal. (Incidentally, Boult was invited to conduct Mengelberg’s orchestra at the Concertgebouw Hall in February 1940 when he gave a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations which was recorded and archived by AVRO). However, at the Maida Vale studios in London, Mengelberg was not happy with the acoustic of the hall, according to orchestra leader Paul Beard, who found Mengelberg to be ‘awful and unpleasant’ to work with, but described him as ‘unquestionably the greatest musician working on the podium at the time.’
A highly detailed account of the rehearsal was published by principal violist Bernard Shore in his book ‘The Orchestra Speaks.’ Here are some extracts.
When he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, he bowed to the exigencies of broadcasting, and only grumbled a little at having his basses and ‘celli separated.
Tuning with him is a ceremony that may take anything from five minutes to (in extreme cases) two hours….On the first occasion this tuning took twenty-five minutes, and gave rise to his first dissertation.
This little matter of time apart, his great experience enables him to solve every orchestral problem. In a difficult work like ‘Heldenleben’ he hears everything and sees at the same time; instantly puts his finger on a weak spot, and proceeds to clear it up without losing his temper; and never resorts to sarcasm, or the time-honoured remark that every other orchestra “plays this easily.”
His unremitting attention to technical details of every kind, as they arise, results in magnificent and confident playing, which it is doubtful whether any conductor can surpass.
Mostly he rehearses from memory. The whole of his first rehearsal with the BBC Orchestra was devoted to the opening portion of ‘Heldenleben’ as far as the entry of the solo violin.
Thoroughly characteristic of his methods was the way in which he tackled the great opening phrase. Each note of the arpeggio had to be detached, in spite of the composer’s direction, because, he said, the audience should hear every note, “and if they are all slurred by the strings, there will be no definition, and the passage will only sound like a chord of E flat,” whereas he wants it to make the terrific effect of a brilliantly clear arpeggio.
He rehearses the opening as far as fig. 2 at great length. First of all taking the violas, ‘celli and horns, until there is complete unanimity in ensemble, phrasing, intonation and style, and all traces of untidiness is removed.
Leech recorded two five minute segments - the opening of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (‘The Hero’), the very opening section that had been rehearsed extensively and described above. He also recorded the section ‘The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion’ near the end of the work. This is an eighty-five year old home recording taken off-air, but the sound is remarkably good from the single microphone the BBC used at this time suspended over the violin section. At once, one can hear the almost visceral attack from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, very similar to the way the Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic commenced the work under the same conductor.
Shore goes on to say:
Not only is this opening passage typical of his genius for producing superb playing, but it also shows his attitude to the composition he is interpreting. Nothing will induce him to obey blindly the composer’s directions if his own experience tells him that they could be made more effective by a slight alteration.
In the concluding scene, a Mengelberg of extreme gentleness appears, capable of exquisite tenderness; and the lovely interjectory phrases on the first and second violins, during the cor anglais solo, are made to sound as if there was all humanity in them.
But if he cannot obtain what he wants from an artist, he will be as hard as iron and may seem to oppose rather than aid. He has the true virtuoso’s intolerance of inadequate playing; he expects to be able to start his rehearsing from scratch, without having to nurse any weakness amongst his players. His ear detects everything. His particular genius is for hearing from the point of view of the man at the back of the hall. Besides satisfying him, this redoubles the clarity for the rest of the audience.
As exciting as this discovery is, I was delighted to find that Mr Leech recorded another portion of a Mengelberg concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra two years later on 19th January 1938. Unfortunately, the surfaces of the discs are noisier and there is less clarity of orchestral sound. However, the recording is important for the fact that it documents another tone poem by his friend Richard Strauss that Mengelberg did not record commercially, nor does a radio broadcast survive of him conducting this work, so this is the only recorded example currently known. The opening of ‘Also Sprach Zarathrustra’ later lodged itself in the public consciousness when it was used in the Arthur C. Clarke film ‘2001 – a Space Odyssey.’ Mr Leech probably realized that the famous opening would be difficult to record and that his cutter head would be overloaded at the climax. He chose to record the following beautiful string section ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, then parts of ‘The Convalescent’, and finally the end of ‘The Dance Song’ followed by the final section of the work ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’. While the recording may not be as thrilling to hear as ‘Ein Heldenleben’ it is none the less an important aural document from more than eighty years ago. The last few notes are missing.
In addition to the Strauss tone poem, the concert included music from Gluck’s ‘Alceste’, the Third Symphony of Brahms and Hindemith’s Variations for Orchestra. The Radio Times noted that:
Richard Strauss has enjoyed Mengelberg’s continued interest and championship. In 1903 Mengelberg brought the Concertgebouw Orchestra to London and directed a Strauss Festival, and in 1924 he organised a Strauss Festival in Amsterdam. Listeners will remember the magnificent reading he gave of ‘Ein Heldenleben’, which is dedicated to him, when he last conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra on November 4, 1936. It will be interesting to hear his performance of the less frequently heard ‘Zarathustra’.
Willelm Mengelberg deserves a higher profile today as one of the most important conductors of the first half of the twentieth century. As Scott Goddard wrote in 1938:
Willem Mengelberg, who has conducted much in America and has been often heard here at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts and at those of the London Symphony Orchestra, is among the first flight, the upper ten of virtuoso conductors of the day, a position that he has won for himself mainly because he is an unbending disciplinarian and a scrupulous trainer.
It is that discipline and scrupulous training along with a strongly held musical conviction that produces the results we hear in Mengelberg’s recordings and the two newly discovered ones here amply prove that.
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