STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, Don Juan, Op. 20 WAGENAAR Cyrano de Bergerac Overture
New York Philharmonic/Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Willem Mengelberg, cond.
Pearl 0008 (F) (ADD) TT: 71:24  

Richard Strauss's long association with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and its conductor from 1895 to 1945, Willem Mengelberg, is partially reflected in his dedication of his 1898 symphonic poem, Ein Heldenleben, to them. Mengelberg was then at the beginning of his half-century as director, but already had impressed the musical world w ith his development of Holland's oldest orchestra into one of the world's finest. He often performed Heldenleben and recorded it twice-- in 1928 with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, and in 1941 with the Concertgebouw, near the end of his tenure. A politically naïf, his open sympathy with the Nazis during their occupation of Holland (although apparently for worthy underlying reasons) led to his dismissal after the war. His passport was confiscated, making it impossible for him to conduct other orchestras thus ending the career of a master conductor Harold C. Schonberg called, "the Horowitz of the orchestra." He died in Switzerland in 1951.

Mengelberg's 1928 Heldenleben in New York was with an orchestra he led after 1922, and over which he had absolute control. The Victor Talking Machine Company wanted to make the recording very special since the NYPSO had just returned to their label. No expense was spared; there were 124 players, the largest number ever for a recording, and the "studio" was Carnegie Hall. I have no idea what the microphone setup was, but by whatever means the engineering was remarkable for its time, with natural balances, clarity and an amazing dynamic range. The recording was made over a period of three days (December 11-13, 1928), and this new CD transfer contains the approved takes of the ten 78-rpm sides. Mengelberg's interpretation is magisterial; there is portamento, but not as much as in his later Concertgebouw recording. All of the solos are impeccably played. Perfection is a word that often comes to mind, listening to what many consider to be the definitive recording of this music, and Mark Obert-Thorn's transfer could not be bettered. It is amazing that such extraordinary sounds were captured by the primitive recording equipment of more than six decades ago.

Two other Mengelberg specialties from Telefunken masters are included: Strauss's Don Juan recorded in 1938, and the brilliant concert overture Cyrano de Bergerac by Dutch composer Johann Wagenaar, in 1942. Of the two, the latter is the finer from a sonic standpoint, superbly capturing the acoustics of Amsterdam's storied concert hall.

R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)