- Author’s Note
- Conductors born in the 1850s
- SIR GEORGE HENSCHEL
- ARTHUR NIKISCH
- ROBERT KAJANUS
- MAX FIEDLER
- KARL MUCK
- Conductors born in the 1860s
- ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ ARBOS
- GABRIEL PIERNÉ
- FRANZ SCHALK
- FELIX WEINGARTNER
- RICHARD STRAUSS
- ARTURO TOSCANINI
- LORENZO MOLAJOLI
- MAX VON SCHILLINGS
- HANS PFITZNER
- SIR HENRY J. WOOD
- Conductors born in the 1870s
- LEO BLECH
- OSKAR FRIED
- WILLEM MENGELBERG
- ALEXANDER VON ZEMLINSKY
- SIEGMUND VON HAUSEGGER
- ALFRED HERTZ
- FREDERICK STOCK
- SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
- SIR LANDON RONALD
- SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY
- SELMAR MEYROWITZ
- PIERRE MONTEUX
- ETTORE PANIZZA
- PABLO CASALS
- BRUNO WALTER
- ARTUR BODANZKY
- OSSIP GABRILOWITSCH
- TULLIO SERAFIN
- SIR THOMAS BEECHAM
- PHILIPPE GAUBERT
- SIR HAMILTON HARTY
- GAETANO MEROLA
- FRANTISEK STUPKA
- Conductors born in the 1880s
- D. E. INGHELBRECHT
- CARL SCHURICHT
- BRUNO SEIDLER-WINKLER
- ALBERT COATES
- LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI
- IGOR STRAVINSKY
- HERMANN ABENDROTH
- ERNEST ANSERMET
- NIKOLAI MALKO
- FRITZ STIEDRY
- VACLAV TALICH
- SAMUIL SAMOSUD
- ALBERT WOLFF
- VITTORIO GUI
- OTTO KLEMPERER
- HANS WEISBACH
- WILHELM FURTWAENGLER
- FRANCO GHIONE
- ROBERT HEGER
- GENNARO PAPI
- PAUL PARAY
- GEORGE GEORGESCU
- PIERO COPPOLA
- HANS KNAPPERTSBUSCH
- FRITZ REINER
- SIR ADRIAN BOULT
Willem Mengelberg, like Henry J. Wood, spent half a century with an institution classifiable as a national monument: from 1895 to 1945 he was music director of that earthy and elegant orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Like Arthur Nikisch he was an early example of the commuting conductor and regularly departed Holland 1907 to 1920 for concerts in Frankfurt. I see him devouring a score by the window of a first class compartment (smoking, of course!) while an international express reverses direction in that wonderful station by Cologne cathedral. During most of the next decade he spent part of each year as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, ultimately sharing the chiefdom with Arturo Toscanini, the Toscanini who won the inevitable battle for titular supremacy at the corner of Fifty-seventh and Seventh.
But Mengelberg didn’t slink back to Amsterdam tail between his legs and become a parody of his former musical self as some commentators have written. That opinion, as Lytton Strachey would have put it, amounts to “oceans of bosh.”
There was, though, a certain impatience with Mengelberg, a Toscanini Need, on the Philharmonic board all along, although the portly little Dutchman with the seven-button vest and a prodigious mop of hair had raised the orchestra’s standard significantly and developed a large following. Mengelberg’s exasperatingly talky rehearsals can’t have helped his board room image. As Winthrop Sargeant, the New Yorker critic who played violin in the Philharmonic in the Mengelberg era has written in Geniuses, Goddesses and People, he had “an endless fund of very pedantic theories on how to train a symphony orchestra” and “in homely, paternal lectures delivered in a unique Holland English” told the nail-biting Philharmonic musicians about the values of “goot orchesterspielen,” demanding of them, in quasi-injured tones, without awaiting an answer, “Vy do you make doo-doo when I tell you to make too-too?” But the Philharmonic sat out the talk and proceeded to play for Mengelberg quite divinely — detractors to the contrary.
Soured on Toscanini-ized New York, Mengelberg remained in Europe after 1930, recording for Columbia until the Depression cut into recording budgets, then for the German firm Telefunken. With the coming of the war Mengelberg accepted the Nazis to the point of occasionally heiling you-know-who and going to Germany, at least for a while, to conduct and record – meanwhile saving at least sixteen Jewish members of his orchestra and getting in hot water for defying the ban on playing Mahler. And for his departure from the patriotic straight and narrow he was exiled at war’s end — luckily he had a chalet in the Swiss Engadine — the sentence originally for life then commuted to six years which, thanks to an embarrassment-saving Providence, he did not quite complete.
Dutch-born of German parents, Mengelberg seems to have welcomed the Nazis out of some old-school romantic notion about a marriage of Germanic peoples, also with a “see no evil” desire — human nature! — to preserve the status quo of his position and his orchestra, which to a large extent he did. After all, who else was supposed to mind the most talented flock of musicians in the western half of occupied Europe if not this man who was as popular in Holland as Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra would become in the United States. Music is the best revenge.
Dr. Berta Geissmar, Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s Jewish secretary, has written in Two Worlds of Music about the kindnesses extended by Mengelberg on her Amsterdam visits in the late Thirties and there are other examples of his natural non-partisan good-heartedness. Politics bored Mengelberg out of his skin. He lived, in a sense, on his own special island, a monarch among invaders as well as a prince among friends. He was 100 pct. Soul and his soul was drenched in music. With virtually every performance he was living in the music’s lining and hurling himself at the barricades of interpretation, eyes blazing, popping, watering, like some opthalmological wonder, with an inscrutable inner glee about them suggesting Harpo Marx no other. And Wow, that clenched left hand reaching the heavens to cue the brass! It’s not surprising that Otto Klemperer, rejected by the Third Reich, conducted a memorial concert for Mengelberg in Amsterdam shortly after his death.
Perhaps a clue to Mengelberg’s wartime indiscretions, sinful and virtuous, may be found in a character summation supplied by one of the wisest ever of conductors’ wives, Doris Monteux. As she writes in It’s All in the Music, Mengelberg was “one of the most fascinating personalities I ever met; he was at the same time kind and generous, unkind and small, bombastic yet gentle, childishly naïve, foolishly proud and pompous yet ridden with a feeling of unworthiness, religious yet at times positively hedonistic. Truly a more complex character never lived.” Could this be the Victor Hugo of the podium? And this is significant: Mengelberg’s gramophonically-captured oeuvre with its oceans of drama, bombshells of soul and complexity of line – his performances could, to borrow a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson, be “strewn with cutting flints” — is not inconsistent with Mrs. Monteux’ amazing list of adjectives.
Fascinating fellow indeed! It was a review copy of Mengelberg’s re-released Heldenleben from 1928 that started me thinking about writing this book, oh about thirty years ago, and it’s never struck me as strange that the chief impetus for 94,173 words with more up the road came from this source, a small man conducting a beautiful performance of a big piece by his friend Richard Strauss while the Seventh Avenue subway rumbled – sometimes audibly! – underneath Carnegie Hall. Now a chronological survey of Mengelberg on record, virtually all the performances with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. “Live” performances are noted as such . . .
4-11-22 — BEETHOVEN’S CORIOLAN OVERTURE (New York Philharmonic): A grave, steady and luminous performance with characteristic cannon-shot chords for Beethoven’s arsenal of dramatic insistence, tension galore, and a lovely long upbeat to the second theme. (Curiously, a 1926 remake in Amsterdam is rather sedate in comparison) . . . 1-4-26 — WAGNER’S RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES: elegant and inexorable, the wind whistling through the Philharmonic — and the companion piece from this session in the Chapter Room of Carnegie Hall is a rollicking, carnivalesque MARCHE SLAV of Tchaikovsky, full of buzz and lift . . . and 1-10-27 — One more Philharmonic item: JOHANN STRAUSS’ TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS, exuberant, captivating, music without a doubt for lovers.
Now Mengelberg has travelled, perhaps on the old S.S. Rotterdam, to Holland . . .
6-10-27 — WAGNER, LOHENGRIN ACT 1 PRELUDE: A lilting, highly charged performance, rather slow, flowing like Burgundy and containing at least one captivating detail, a deep breath inserted at the end of bar 49 just before the timpani crescendo into the music’s BIG CLIMAX. It’s rather as if the performance is about to dive off the high board and for a moment considers the importance of landing just right . . . And from the same session: CHERUBINI’S ANACREON OVERTURE, a great Mengelberg favorite, in an urgent, balletic performance with Watch Out! crescendi . . . 5-12-28 — From this Amsterdam session: a charming WALTZ from TCHAIKOVSKY’s SERENADE with coy upbeats, snappy oom-pah, ravishing playing by soloistic violins, plus an OBERON OVERTURE by WEBER claiming a very slow delivery of the lyric second theme which Weber, aha, marked dolce within an allegro con fuoco context.
6-29 — LISZT’S LES PRELUDES: If Felix Weingartner was sent down to us to carry the message of Mendelssohn surely Willem Mengelberg saw the light of day to reveal Franz Liszt in all his bustle, color and lyric charm. Enjoy the thunderous pizzazz of this performance, full of longing! . . . 6-1-31 — WEBER’S EURYANTHE OVERTURE: Just before the pretty-as-a-picture second theme Mengelberg breaks our hearts with a dawdling and regretful account of the cellos’ little introduction to this melody – “we’d like you to meet this new theme,” the cellos seem to say. Well, this curvaceous new theme represents worthy Adolar’s vision of Euryanthe, and if you read Professor Tovey’s hilarious account of this opera’s impossible libretto you’ll find that there is trouble ahead, through treachery Euryanthe will be made to appear faithless to good Adolar.
5-9-32 — TCHAIKOVSKY ROMEO AND JULIET OVERTURE FANTASY: A straightforward introduction leads into a debonair, airborne performance of the combative allegro giusto – the story seemingly as told by Mercutio! – before Mengelberg constructs a fascinating love scene. Bear in mind the composer has not literally cancelled his shootout allegro here but is handing out dolces and espressivi like candy. To access said scene we seem to pass behind a curtain into the young lovers’ intimate domain. The tempo for the celebrated clarinet theme at the outset, we’re at Letter G, bar 184, is slow, tender, almost in a trance, then after several measures in a passage of oscillating, breeze-rustling chords in the violins pp con sordini, Mengelberg at about 200 makes one and then another little diminuendo not in the script, tying therewith the strings of that curtain firmly as he can, so as to enable Maximum Privacy. With Tchaikovsky’s crescendo up to the dolce ma sensibile of arching winds over a panting horn, this puts us at 213, Mengelberg speeds a bit only to slow again within three bars, and why this vacillation that has doubtless furrowed the brows of critics galore? Ah, the reason is simple, Romeo can’t decide how aggressive to be with his delicate partner, should he unbutton another button, loosen another stay . . .
6-24-35 — GLUCK’S ALCESTE OVERTURE: Glazed eyes in the violins make for a tearful introduction to this sober charmer. Mengelberg proceeds with a velvety tension.
10-6-38 (a “live” performance) — TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE FOR STRINGS: This could be a suite from a fraternal twin of Eugene Onegin. In the opening movement a Tatiana type seems to be scurrying about with love on her mind, nostalgia is extreme, the music is inflected so it TALKS to you, carries her message. In the succeeding Waltz, a favorite Mengelberg lollipop, the music is silky, dreamy, moving with a not so quiet lyric desperation. The Elegie movement grows like an ambitious plant, burning with feeling, the finale is a cry from the wilderness . . . And it all depends on what you mean by the word serenade! . . . and from the same concert, RAVEL, DAPHNIS AND CHLOE, SUITE NO. 2: Very interesting, Mengelberg begins at about four fifths Ravel’s quarter = 50, then with utter atmospheric logic eases closer to the composer’s marking when a few bars later the score indicates that little by little daybreak comes. It’s as if you can see the good Lord checking the metronome in his grey-haired hand as He turns on the day poco a poco, at the speed of light (well, emerging light), making nature’s accelerando . . . At all events Ravel, Mengelberg and Whoever collaborate to create a mellifluous opening more languor-dipped we could not imagine – come to think of it, not only is day’s awakening portrayed but that of the lovers as well, a good orchestral yawn leading to a good little accel. Then in the first stages of the Pantomime Mengelberg out-Ravel’s the composer’s generous requests for rubati and manages the most laidback transition imaginable before the great flute solo, itself so airy and undoctrinaire in this performance its first chair protagonist seems happily lost in some pastoral nirvana. Ravel, incidentally, was a great fan of Mengelberg’s way with his music. Mahler and Richard Strauss are others who put their trust in his charged baton and those demonic eyes.
10-29/30-38 — BRAHMS’ FOURTH SYMPHONY: One might have expected Mengelberg to follow Max Fiedler and other mad romantics in choosing a really slow opening for this symphony’s nominal allegro non troppo, but there it is, a moderate 72 beats to the minute, Mengelberg sticking to it faithfully on Brahms’ first page and in fact his tempo for the striding second theme is only a hair faster – Mengelberg sinks his boots into the music here, as if to escape the lure of a lurking and traditional “con moto” — meaning that he’s actually more uniform in the relationship of themes I and 2 than Toscanini himself. A brooding clarinet at the start of the slow movement is another interesting feature of this strong performance. Again in the passacaglia finale Mengelberg is so conservative in matters of tempo he wouldn’t scare the timidest commentator –meanwhile there are some compassionate little inflections of phrase in the part writing – until, that is, this movement’s celebrated flute solo which is taken quite slowly indeed, the protagonist permitted a veritable heap of long-lined sadness and passion.
11-8-38 — RICHARD STRAUSS’ DON JUAN: A steamy, rather angular performance, taut and a bit tart. Measure 18 and the final note of the trumpet’s rousing marcato call is clipped from a dotted half to something much less, as if some punishing force had snapped it off, hrrmph! Here surely is Lenau’s hero at his most stressed and surfeited . . . and 12-1-38 — DEBUSSY, PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: A sunny performance, with the page 1 flute just there, coming from nowhere . . . and 4-2-39 (“live”) — BACH, ST. MATTHEW PASSION (with soloists Vincent, Durigo, Erb, Ravelli): The St. Matthew was an annual Palm Sunday event in Amsterdam in Mengelberg’s day and is still a Dutch springtime specialty — I heard a performance of it in Utrecht, Mengelberg’s birthplace, in 2004, with Dutch cousins participating. The ’39 version finds Mengelberg propelling a characteristic interpretation, mellow/plaintive/defiant, absolutely drenched in feeling. In Utrecht/04, alas, the conductor chopped off the fermatas of the chorales as if they were the wrong end of green onions and we left at the half.
11-9-39 (“live”) — MAHLER FOURTH SYMPHONY (with Jo Vincent): Listening again to this landmark performance after many years I’d forgotten how much fun it can be, how supremely spontaneous it sounds — at the saucy opening for instance which comes on so sweet and coy. This is a performance of maximums, many moods and flavors from the impulsive to the terribly nostalgic, the ineffably tender to the catastrophic, all bound by the power and conviction of their projection and faithful always to the characterized time kept by a composer whose score is full of specified rubati, molti espressivi, don’t hurrys, abrupt changes of tempo, the anti-metronomical components of the human condition. Some listeners – perhaps those who like their curries mild? — will be offended by the extremely extended upbeat to the opening movement’s first theme, but those of a less somber bent are free to enjoy the amorous atmosphere produced therewith, the music like playful lovers eyeing ravenously each other’s lips before the theme itself uncoils to an embrace. So there! What Mahler proposed to Mengelberg for this moment was “let’s pretend we’re starting up a waltz in Vienna.”
The scherzo of Mahler’s Fourth with its spectral violin tuned a tone high originally carried a title translated as (I borrow William Mann’s English) Brother Death Strikes Up. Mahler thought the movement “mystical, bewildering and weird” and never has it been moreso than in Mengelberg’s performance whirling and buzzing at a hasty 152 eighths to the minute, short swiping violin staccati conjuring a nightmare of pests. Surely this is more speed than Mahler’s in a leisurely motion indicates, but the face of the music says 152 no less persuasively than the 116 another great Mahlerian, Jascha Horenstein, elects, more or less, in a creaky-courtly performance, fascinatingly resigned. Mahler said that the negatives of the scherzo are disentangled in the great poco adagio that follows, but considering the harrowing paces through which he puts his poignant second theme the process is not an easy one. Mengelberg is immediately in very deep, in a kind of ecstasy of sadness, seizing an extra moment of awe when he adds a fifth beat to the second bar of the opening theme wherein espressivo cellos come bearing l-o-n-g notes. In the process he barely averts a diminuendo taking a right turn into infinity.
. . . And from the same concert, one of the early performances of BLOCH’S VIOLIN CONCERTO, with Joseph Szigeti. A tad melodramatic perhaps but strong, this is fetching music. Coming as it does from an era of bountiful symphonic innocence this grand-scaled piece suggests Bartók as written for a Western. Why, the wide open orchestration is as spacious as Monument Valley. Violinist and conductor are perfect partners, rhythmically strong, keeping the rhapsodic element under control. Especially haunting: the suspended perfumed pentatonicism of the slow movement.
11-26-39 (“live”) — TCHAIKOVSKY’S FIFTH SYMPHONY: Behold here a lip-biting first movement, proceeding as an artful succession of stumblings and releases disorderly as life itself but not ungraceful, one passage evolving from another under the eye of Lady Luck. Characteristically Mengelberg doesn’t wait long to be creative or naughty, whichever description you prefer: there are subtle but palpable hesitations as early as the second and third full bars of the star turn for clarinet & bassoon early in the post-intro allegro con anima. Desperation virtually boils over before the recapitulation enters with the lead bassoon trying to come on blasé. At the end of the movement the timpani’s ppp crescendo diminuendo is elevated into something appalling. Note also a fantastical waltz movement in which the tempo of the trio is upped drastically as if to suggest the buzzings of a very addled hero’s brain. One’s reminded of Martin Amis’ description of a Nabokov novel as not proceeding to a conclusion so much as “accumulating possibilities of pain and danger.”
Was the “phony war” of autumn ’39 exerting its toll here? Possibly, but there are Mengelberg performances no less risky dating from more truly peaceful times.
11-27-39 (“live”) — SCHUBERT’S UNFINISHED SYMPHONY: Characterization is the name of the game here as in so many Mengelberg performances. The roll call of dramatical nuance includes an angry first theme in the opening movement, and a very sad second one, slightly dragging its feet. The succeeding development, after an exposition repeat, is stinging and anguished, then with the recapitulation we’re back to Fate’s inexorable spinning. The unsettled second movement has about it a curious fragility, a novelistic delicacy.
A footnote here to say that Mengelberg made a commercial recording of the Unfinished for Telefunken in, apparently, November 1942 — it’s missing from the invaluable discography put out by Tahra Records. This later Unfinished is not to be sneezed at one bit, but compared to the tragic ’39 broadcast it is not, as the three-star headwaiter would say when advising you on the inferior status of a veal chop compared to the house’s signature salmon in sorrel, particulier.
And from the BEETHOVEN cycle spring of ’40:
4-18-40 (“live”) — FIFTH SYMPHONY: The most interesting thing about this Fifth is Mengelberg’s care to keep the timpani part alive and kicking in its partnership with those squirmy S-curving violins during the suspenseful transition from scherzo to finale: occupied from measure 324 with Beethoven’s Morse code it settles at 336 into a picket fence of repeated C’s, sempre pp all the way to 367 says the score. That is just a bit too uniform for Mengelberg and he elects a small subito diminuendo at 336, followed by a little crescendo at 339. From such minor detail Mengelberg like some Flaubert or Tolstoy of the airwaves builds the intake of nuance to fuel an ever-vital performance.
4-21-40 (“live”) — SECOND SYMPHONY: Like Oskar Fried, Mengelberg sees the three themes of the second movement as terraced upward in tempo. For Fried’s clockings of about 58, 72 and 80 beats, substitute in Amsterdam 56, 66 and 72-76.
And I like the tension of a first movement tempo held a couple notches below Beethoven’s stated 100.
4-25-40 (“live”) — FOURTH SYMPHONY: The famously mysterious place in the second movement before the recapitulation with its weaving of first and second violins, partly in dumb alternation, in a left field harmonic situation that amounts, technically speaking, to the dominant of the flat sixth of the dominant (gobbledygook that, of course — better to talk about the “tension of the tension”), well, in any event this is good interpretive meat for Mengelberg and with an unrushed tempo and talking-to-you inflection of that sinuous line he allows it to sound as crazy as it really is, the holding pattern from hell, rather as if one were sweating in a non-aisle, non-window seat in an old Airbus in the grip of a mad pilot circling a fogged-in Schipol at an aerial rush hour with warnings of volcanic ash coming in from the control tower. Of course the pioneer Chicago conductor Theodore Thomas thought this passage “full of happiness.”
7-9-40 (with Conrad Hansen and Berlin Philharmonic) — TCHAIKOVSKY B FLAT MINOR PIANO CONCERTO: Engaging nuance all the way, beginning with the weighty but lilting Now HearThis! opening. The second subject area of the first movement is especially felicitous: the A flat poco meno mosso theme with its built-in hesitation, derived from poetical long notes placed mid-bar once and then again in a kind of elbowing seesaw, is agreeably uncertain, and its tidal corollary dreamy as can be.
And back in Amsterdam, swastikas alas in the stalls . . .
10-3-40 (“live”) — FRANCK SYMPHONY: Full of tautness and snap, a performance here in which the Mengelberg-led players of the Concertgebouw characteristically become actors in a drama, the trombones rasping like brass dragons, the timpani a schoolboy on a spree. Meanwhile Mengelberg’s deputy, Eduard van Beinum, was wooing a lighter and more abstract virtuosity from the same players other subscription evenings. The finale of this Franck broadcast is especially treasurable for the rich and transparent string counterpoint, a perfect fulfillment of the composer’s molto legato at the beginning of the development. And note: a Telefunken recording Mengelberg made of Franck’s symphony a few weeks later is not as fluid as this broadcast, its feistyness is less attractive.
10-13-40 (“live”) — BRAHMS’ FIRST SYMPHONY: For me one of the most exciting Brahms Firsts ever. If there were a Michelin Green Guide for orchestral music it would surely note the angry but regretful opening, the slow launch of the big and rocking crescendo from just after Letter A, the catching of the piano espressivo oboe in deep thought after the sforzando beginning of bar 29, the huge linger in the cellos as they descend, mimicking that oboe, toward the first movement allegro. In said main allegro the lyrically rich second subject becomes quite slow much earlier than usual – think that glorious yawn of the third horn just before Letter D – and before it’s done, all that skimpy underwear so to speak of Brahms’ lightly-scored orchestral fabric, will have reached down, convincingly, as low as half tempo. In the finale Mengelberg invents for the steaming cellos and double basses a crescendo just as the timpani recedes into the landmark più andante with its famous horn solo f sempre e passionate — something in that bar 29 just has to give! Granted there’s too much stop and start in the glorious theme of the finale’s complicatedly marked allegro non troppo, ma con brio, but how about the delicious cooing of those connubial oboes in the second subject, they could be amorous cats.
10-27-40 (“live”) — This remarkable October at the Concertgebouw – with Mengelberg balking at the Mahler ban and the musicians trying to ignore all the Nazi uniforms in the hall – continues with the most interesting of the three Mengelberg TANNHAEUSER OVERTURES extant, the others being “studio” versions from ’26 and ’32. Virtually unique in this Wagnerian’s experience is the final chapter 1940-style, salvation appearing in the trombones in elegant climactic augmentation while Mengelberg’s puckish accomplice at the timpani, the same one apparently who has amused us with phraseological derring-do in other Mengelberg performances, proceeds to turn somersault upon somersault, giving this overture with his incredible dance of the drums a diabolical finish. Precisely what this slamming, bouncing drummer does with the figure that recurs thirteen times at least in succession (and is, amazingly enough, scarcely audible in recordings of Klemperer and Furtwaengler et al. although Markevitch buys into it) is to attack with maximum relish the initial roll of each statement, and, with no less pizzazz, employ Wagner’s innocent tag of an eighth note as the vigorous and un-lapsing upbeat to each crashing renewal to come, not the mere adjacent thing it generally is.
10-31-40 (“live”) — RACHMANINOFF SECOND PIANO CONCERTO (with Walter Gieseking): An elegant performance, as one would expect with this soloist. The recapitulation of the regretful second theme in the finale is slower yet than in the exposition, the effect absolutely heartbreaking. “This time it’s really goodbye,” the music in this interpretation says quite distinctly, as if to preview that celebrated British film Brief Encounter in which, several years later, this concerto played butler-and-maid so to speak for the nice couple whose commuter-train affair has no future. . .
Now as for Rachmaninoff’s encounter music – there is, no news, a lot of this sexy stuff in his oeuvre, hear it not only in pretty themes but sperm-delaying harmonic prolongations. Hormonal prolongations? What to make of it now that there’s scholarship out there suggesting Rachmaninoff was a closet gay?
And hear this: Rachmaninoff expert Max Harrison quotes Frank Howes writing of a performance of this concerto in which its composer sitting at the Steinway “reversed every one of his own markings.”
12-12-40 (“live”) — KODALY, HARY JANOS: Comic relief at last. A lush and hilarious performance launched with a cute little orchestral sneeze and continuing with a Viennese Musical Clock manned, it seems, by toy soldiers. The Defeat of Napoleon swings! . . . and 4-22-41 — TCHAIKOVSKY PATHETIQUE SYMPHONY: Our imaginary Green Michelin pounces on the development of the first movement which begins in this recording as if struggling out of a straitjacket. Sassy trumpets at measure 190 give us Tchaikovsky’s triple forte marcatissimo with a vengeance, then at 201 the piano cantabile of one trumpet & three trombones playing long notes is slowed into a g-o-l-d-e-n c-h-o-r-a-l-e, after which violins whispering the movement’s main allegro motif at 230 launch a passage of high desperation, the tempo down again. And magnificently slow as well is the Volgaesque inundation of stately brass at 277.
11-5-42 — MOZART’S EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK: Relief again – and how fresh the coquettish second trio of the Romanze becomes when Mengelberg ups the tempo to a darting giddy presto.
2-27-44 (“live”) — BRAHMS’ THIRD SYMPHONY: Mengelberg must have realized this would be his last Brahms Third ever, the nostalgic melody of the third movement is prolonged as if he were desperately afraid to let . . it . . . go. An echo of Toscanini, actually.
Now listen to Bernard Shore the BBC violist writing in The Orchestra Speaks, he’s more substantive about Mengelberg than the Winthrop Sargeant we quoted a few pages back. He tells, for instance, of how his left hand was responsible for the entire range of expression and for balance: “His left hand may appear rather hard and unyielding but can none the less be made wonderfully sensitive and is capable of inspiring the most exquisite tenderness.” Great kindliness, Shore says, could appear on Mengelberg’s rugged face, and he writes of how he would turn at rehearsals to that celebrated “art of dissertation” instead of instilling fear in the hearts of the “victims” cowering perhaps before his throne of perfection. Shore insists these dissertations for all their sometime Polonian air (hot air?) were full of sound matter. Demands, for instance, for the utmost warmth and life in the vibrato. And they took, he says, “far less toll of the precious energy of the orchestra than the incessant demands for white-hot playing made by such a conductor as Koussevitzky whose rehearsals are like a series of terrific concerts.” Mengelberg, says this observant violist, would become “a geyser of energy, (seeming) to increase in stature upon the rostrum, inspiring the orchestra to its utmost power.” Those eyes were at work! Yes, says Shore, Mengelberg in that seven-button vest was right on when he announced: “There ees nothing I do not know about der orchester.”
Well, have we mentioned the second horn in the trio of the scherzo in Mengelberg’s Eroica from the early Forties? When do you really hear, and with such pirouetting raciness, that pair of eighth notes in the seventh bar? Mengelbergian gold from Beethoven’s mine.
. . . And an encore: I’ve just heard Mengelberg’s Mozart F major piano concerto from 10-13-40 with Willem Andriessen and it’s too interesting to pass up. In terms of the scant tempo modification Eduard Van Beinum could be on the podium, but the aura of the performance with its shot of drang is pure Mengelberg. In the opening movement and the finale too, right up to its Papageno/Papagena pa-pa-pa-pa finish the inflection is all about making this music that can sound so innocent suggest one of Mozart’s dramatic concertos in the minor, the D minor, say, or the C minor. Relief comes in the slow movement where those Amsterdam woodwinds sound like nature’s chirpy emissaries . . . And oh there’s that Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Cor de Groot from 5-9-42, another early evening concert due to the wartime blackout. Mengelberg’s habitual tap-TAP on the lectern is a call to arms here. Absolutely regular in tempo but full of snap, an edge-of-Vesuvian urgency, the first movement seems bolder, and shorter, than ever.