The original version of this article appeared
in FI MAGAZINE, April 1996 (Volume 1, Issue 3)
and is printed with their permission
The sound of music played in the Concertgebouw owes its unique flavor to a host of factors: the hall's shape, decoration, and its traditional wood and plaster construction; yet a large part of the credit also flows from what its builders left out of the design, for by allowing music to fill its space from a stage without a ceiling or a proscenium, the hall creates a rich, resonant sound that even a major overhaul, undertaken in 1985 to the building's faltering foundation, did not alter. There is no need for reflectors as are used in so many of today's concert halls. Musical vibrations radiate out naturally in all directions, doubtless a major factor in the sound of the hall.
On November 3, 1888, the new Concertgebouw Orchestra, formed by the Wagner society, and named after the hall itself, gave its debut concert, a festival performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under conductor Henri Viotta. Their most famous leader, however, was the young Dutchman who succeeded his fellow countryman Willem Kes in 1895; it was this musician, Josef Willem Mengelberg, who in his fifty-year reign developed the Concertgebouw into a world-class orchestra. His recordings with them at once secured a place for the orchestra among the world's premiere ensembles. And the Orchestra's eminence in the recording world was perpetuated by others who followed Mengelberg as leaders of the orchestra: Eduard van Beinum, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Chailly.
It's not surprising that no acoustic recordings were made in the Concertgebouw: wonderful as it is for concerts, the hall probably would have proved rather unsuited for a process that seemed to work best in small, unresonant studios. While Mengelberg made a significant number of acoustic discs with the New York Philharmonic (as well as some stunning electric recordings, including what many consider to be the definitive Ein Heldenleben), the first he made in Amsterdam did not occur until May 1926, when British Columbia's Arthur Brooks brought his Western Electric recording gear to sessions that produced Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, two Beethoven overtures, two excerpts from The Damnation of Faust of Berlioz, and the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The latter is a major recording as it represents one of only three existing Mengelberg performances of music of Mahler represented on discs. Mengelberg was a close friend of the composer, whose music he championed throughout his career. At a tad over seven minutes, the performance is a revelation, never sounding rushed or hurried -- compared with today's typical performance time of 10/12 minutes.
The album cover for the Columbia recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, recorded
May 10, 1928. The set contained seven 12" 78rpm discs, with the final side contains the
Waltz from the same composer's Serenade for Strings recorded two days later.
Columbia continued to record in Amsterdam until 1932, although Mengelberg himself did not become its exclusive artist until 1930, when he was guaranteed a minimum of 15 sessions for the following three years. This period was remarkably productive, producing Bach's Suite No. 2, Brahms' Symphony No. 3, Tchaikovsky's Symphonies 4 and 5, a second (and many think definitive) recording of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, and many other shorter works.
The sound of these early records reflects all the pluses and minuses of early 78s. Despite their limited frequency response and the use of a single microphone, balances are superb and the overall quality of sound totally satisfying: strings have body, brass is burnished and brilliant, woodwinds distinctively defined, there is plenty of percussion impact, all enveloped by the famed Concertgebouw sound. Performances are exemplary, clearly displaying accepted styles of early 20th century interpretation á la Mengelberg: careful balances, and frequent use of rubato and portamento are the norm rather than the exception. These are by no means perfect records technically. Some were recorded at 80 rpm, others at 78s; but at both speeds instability makes their pitch drift from the beginning to the end of some sides, a problem that's superbly solved in the fine Pearl CD issues of all Mengelberg's Columbia discs. Mengelberg was very intrigued by the recording process and exuberant as well; see the photo of him examining a cutting lathe. It is reported that many "takes" could not be used as immediately afterwards, while the machines were still running he would comment enthusiastically about what they had done and the take could not be used.
It's not surprising that Columbia abandoned Mengelberg and the Orchestra after 1932 -- worldwide record sales were by then at an historic low, and Columbia could now satisfy demand for orchestral music with the new London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1935, the Orchestra made three discs of music of Gluck and Bach for British Decca, but it wasn't until April 1937 that Mengelberg and His Orchestra (as they were identified on many of their Columbia albums) began recording again in earnest for German Telefunken, a relationship that would continue through the beginning of a new World War -- and the conquest and occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis -- until November 1942. Many major works were recorded during the five years of this relationship, including symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, and Tchaikovsky, as well as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, two works of Strauss: Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, and many shorter works. While the balances on these recordings suggest that more than one microphone was used, they retain the space and unmistakable sound of the Concertgebouw. They also turned out to be Mengelberg's last commercial records; when the Orchestra started its final year of war-time recordings in 1943, it was before the microphones of Polydor/Deutsche Grammophon under Eugen Jochum, Paul van Kempen, a young Herbert von Karajan, and a forty-two year old Dutchman named Eduard van Beinum, who had been associate conductor to Mengelberg since 1931, and who would succeed the disgraced elder maestro in 1945 to usher in a new and exciting era in the Orchestra's recorded history.
THE SOUND OF FFRR
The new era began in earnest a year later when the Orchestra, spurning the renewed courtship of its old recording partner, Columbia, signed on instead with a new English partner, Decca Records. Surprisingly, Decca's first Concertgebouw Orchestra sessions took place in May 1946 not in the Concertgebouw, but in London's Walthamstow Assembly Hall (works recorded: Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 2 and excerpts from The Damnation of Faust of Berlioz). But by September, engineer Arthur Haddy and producer Victor Olof were making records in the Concertgebouw. The decision was made to move the Orchestra from the stage area to the floor of the auditorium where Decca felt it could get the best results, and where the Orchestra has been placed for most recordings made in the six decades since. A series of FFRR (full frequency range recordings) discs were made on 78s whose sound remains to this day a remarkable demonstration of direct-to-disc technique. Decca's superb 78 rpm recordings from Amsterdam, including famous performances by Erich Kleiber, George Szell, Charles Munch, and van Beinum, are a tribute to the range and low distortion of Decca's recording gear. Some of these were issued on 78 rpm disks as well as in the new LP format in the early '50s, but soon Decca/London recordings were issued only on LP.
THE PHILIPS YEARS
Decca's technical innovations had the biggest impact on the Orchestra's recorded legacy in the early '50s. But it was the Dutch electronics giant, Philips, that for the next three decades would make the Concertgebouw's recorded legacy, first with a series of extraordinary discs made with Paul van Kempen in 1951, and then through an exclusive record contract starting in 1953. From Philips came Antal Dorati's Pictures at an Exhition in 1952, which won a Gran Prix du Disque the following year. From 1951 to 1953 the Concertgebouw recorded for both Philips and Decca. For the latter some superb performances were taped: van Beinum's Mahler Fourth, Bruckner Seventh, En Saga and Tapiola of Sibelius, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Clifford Curzon) and Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes.
Eduard van Beinum made the biggest contribution to the Philips catalog of the '50s, including their first official Concertgebouw stereo recording, in May 1957, of Debussy's La Mer and Nocturnes. The simple microphone setup yielded a sonic picture that remains extraordinary, to me as fine as any stereo recording since that time in the Concertgebouw, even though it doesn't have the dynamic range of later digital recordings. More sonic marvels were to come, when Decca's producer John Culshaw and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson in February 1961 recorded stunning versions of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with Georg Solti on the podium, and a suite from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet under the baton of Anatole Fistoulari. The Mahler was issued briefly on a London CD (417 745) long out-of-print; the Tchaikovsky, inexplicably never released on CD in the U.S., has remained a popular favorite in Japan, where its most recent incarnation occured on KICC 8285. (It is now available from www.sd-associates.com).
THE HAITINK YEARS
It was a youthful Bernard Haitink who was appointed conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1964 in succession to van Beinum, who had died of a heart attack five years earlier while rehearsing the orchestra. Haitink's association with the orchestra lasted 26 years. Although he had already made his first recordings, Dvorak's Symphony No.7 and four of the same composer's Slavonic Dances, in September 1959, he would over the next three decades record prolifically for Philips, including all of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, sharing the orchestra on records (and in the concert hall) with George Szell, Pierre Monteux, and Eugen Jochum in the 1960s, and with Josef Krips and Sir Colin Davis during the 1970s.
It is these Philips recordings that have established the sound of the
Concertgebouw in its hall for most listeners of today. It is a sound
that is clearly multi-miked, and in the later '60s and '70s, more often
than not remixed from multi-track originals. It is a sound that says "Philips" the way Mercury says
"Mercury", or Decca says "Decca".
THE 1980s -- NEW PARTNER AND NEW SOUND
By the beginning of the 1980s, Philips' "exclusive" relationship with the Concertgebouw was becoming much less exclusive For Decca/London the orchestra made a series of recordings conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, early digital recordings engineered by Decca/s great engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. These had a glowing quality, splendid definition and wide dynamic range. Later recordings for the same label with a different production team have generally been disappointing, with undefined bass and an absence of the sound of the hall itself, surely one of the chief reasons for making records there in the first place! Riccardo Chailly, Haitink's successor who took over a year before the Orchestra became the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to commemorate its 100th Anniversary, has made many recordings for Decca/London, but few suggest the true Concertgebouw sound. The same must be said about EMI's live recordings of Beethoven with Wolfgang Sawallisch and Berlioz with Maris Janssons. Apparently to avoid audience sounds microphones were placed very close to the orchestra, eliminating the distinctive "Concertgebouw sound."
In 1993 Philips
issued "The Kondrashin Recordings," as a Collector Limited Edition."
Kiril Kondrashin was a favorite in Amsterdam, appearing annually beginning in 1968, appointed "permanent guest conductor" in 1975 and
remaining in that position until his death in March 1981. The series
of 8 CDs are all live recordings by Radio Nederland offering superlative
performances of Symphonies 1 and 2 of Brahms, Mendelssohn Symphony No.
4, Borodin Symphony No. 2, Beethoven Symphony No.3, Sibelius Symphony
No. 5, Nielsen Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich Symphonies 6 and 9,
Prokofiev Symphony No. 3, Ravel's complete Daphnis and Chloe,
Rhapsodie espagnole and La Valse, Gershwin's An American in Paris
, Paganiniana by Casella, and a stunning performance of
Stravinsky's Petrushka. The reproduction is outstanding; yes,
audience sounds can on occasion be heard, but so can the music and the
glorious sound of the Concertgebouw. These CDs have long
been deleted; should you see any of them anywhere, grab them quickly!
Another Kondrashin performance has just been issued by TAHRA (June 2002), a
magnificent Mahler Symphony No. 7 from a concert Nov. 29, 1979 (TAH 451).
RADIO THE RESCUE -- AND HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
If the foregoing sounds a somewhat dreary and less-than-hopeful in regard to Concertgebouw recordings, we may take heart now not from record companies but from Radio Nederland, which began recording Concertgebouw concerts in 1937 and continues to do so to this day. Many of their older transcriptions have been issued on "official" Philips records/CDs as well as several smaller labels. It is tragic that countless tapes of the '50s and '60s apparently have been erased - the treasures that they contained! - but that's the way it is. An important document that is available is a six-CD set issued on Globe, featuring performances from various Holland Festivals with two CDs devoted to guest conductors with the Concertgebouw (Globe GLO 6900). It includes performances recorded from 1941 to 1979 by George Szell, (Wagenaar, Richard Strauss); Bruno Walter (Mahler Fourth with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf); Pierre Boulez (Webern); Carlo Maria Giulini (Webern); Wilhelm Furtwangler (Beethoven); Leopold Stokowski (Debussy); Pierre Monteux (Ravel); Kiril Kondrashin (Ravel); and Jean Fournet (de Falla). Another major issue is a 14-CD set of Haitink live performances during his tenure as leader of the orchestra with a wide range of repertory, all beautifully recored. See review. There also is an outstanding set of seven Mahler symphonies, also from live performances. See review. And the Radio Nederland 11-CD set of live Mengelberg performances should not be missed. See review.
Radio Nederland continues to release recorded concerts for broadcast on public radio stations; just about all of these have sound superior to what is heard on most of their commercial recordings. Listeners with stations in their area that offer these broadcasts are fortunate, indeed. Unfortunately most stations utilize so much compression of their signal that the wide dynamic range is limited. Some of the finest digital sound from the famous Amsterdam concert hall can be heard on the RCA/BMG set of Mahler's symphonies recorded during live performances with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic conducted by Edo de Waart. The pickup is excellent: these CDs have presence, a very wide dynamic range, excellent balance, extended bass response, and the natural sound of the Concertgebouw. Let us hope they are a harbinger of more quality recordings to come. As mentioned earlier, the first official stereo recording in the Concertgebouw was in May of 1957, Debussy's La Mer and Nocturnes with Beinum conducting. This remains one of the finest, most natural sonic achievements in the Concertgebouw and offers perfect stereo placement of instruments. Perhaps Decca/London - and other companies fortunate enough to be able to record in the Concertgebouw - should listen to this and go back to a simpler microphone setup.
SUGGESTED CONCERTGEBOUW CDs (all with the Concertgebouw Orchestra)
"MENGELBERG AND THE CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA"
Complete Columbia/Odeon recordings, Volumes I & II
Pearl GEMM 9018 (3 CDs) GEMM 9070 (3 CDs)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies 4, 5, 6. Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture.
Willem Mengelberg, cond.
Music & Arts CD 809 (2 Cds)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Ballet (complete). Antal Dorati, cond.
Philips Duo 442 562 (2 CDs)
DEBUSSY: Orchestral Music. Bernard Haitink, cond.
Philips Duo 438 742 (2 CDs)
STRAUSS: Symphonic poems. Bernard Haitink, cond.
Philips Duo 442 281 (2 CDs)
MAHLER: "Orchestral Songs" Janet Baker/Jessye Norman, sopranos; James King, tenor; Hermann Prey, baritone; John Shirley-Quirk, bass/Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips Duo 454 014 (2 CDs)
"THE RAREST RECORDINGS" (Bach/Mozart/Schubert/Berlioz/Borodin)
Willem Mengelberg, cond.
Pearl GEMM 9154
STRAVINSKY: Le sacre du printemps/Petrushka. Sir Colin Davis, cond.
Philips 464 744
SHOSTAKOVITCH: Jazz / Ballet Suites / Piano Concerto No. 1.
Richard Brautigam, pianist, Riccardo Chailly, cond.
London 433 702
SCHAT: The Heavens, Op. 37 ("Twelve Symphonic Variations")
Riccardo Chailly, cond. (rec. live 1992)
NM Classics 92033
MAHLER: Song of the Earth Kirsten Thorborg, contralto; Carl Martin
Öhmann, tenor; Carl Schuricht, cond. (rec. live 1939)
BRUCKNER: Symphonies 8 and 9 Eduard van Beinum, cond.
Philips 422 730 and 422 731
RAVEL: Daphnis and Chloe (complete)/Schéhérazade/ Victoria de los Angeles, sop/Pierre Monteux, cond. (rec. live 1955 and 1963)
Music & Arts CD 812
BRAHMS: Four Symphonies Eduard van Beinum, cond.
Philips 462 534 (2 CDs)(*)
DEBUSSY: La Mer, Nocturnes, Iberia Eduard van Beinum, cond.
Philips 462 069(*)
MAHLER: Song of the Earth/Songs of a Wayfarer Nan Merriman, mezzo-
soprano; Ernst Haefliger, tenor; Eduard van Beinum, cond.
Philips 462 068(*)
SCHUBERT: Symphonies 3, 6, 8 Eduard van Beinum, cond.
Philips 462 724(*)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies 5,6/Capriccio italien/Romeo & Juliet/Marche
slave/1812 Overture. Paul van Kempen, cond.
Philips 438 310 (3 CDs)
Some of these have been deleted but might be found in cut-out bins. Van Beinum recordings with an asterisk (*) are, as of this writing, are available only in Holland.
R.E.B. (Rev. June 2002)