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CD Review

Mengelberg Conducts

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
Monaural, Recorded in 1938 & 1940
Opus Kura OPK2026
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One of my more useless accomplishments as a writer for Classical Net is that I hold the record (as of this writing) for "most reviews of Don Juan". I actually take pride in it, especially because this early tone poem has such a wide range of ways to captivate listeners. Here, it sandwiches the Wagner Prelude and the sunny Second Symphony of Brahms in what is undoubtedly a well-restored and well-conducted program. Like many great conductors, Mengelberg could be awfully individual, and some of his recordings are a little strange. On the other hand, he could surprise you with his range of repertoire and the sheer excellence of his results. His unfortunate affiliation with the Nazis destroyed everything from his career and reputation to his well-being, and he died disgraced shortly after the Second World War. Whatever his personal issues, his best work is hands down some of the most interesting of his era, and deserves to be heard again.

Albany Music Distributors gives American listeners the chance to explore the Japanese treasure trove that is Opus Kura, and if you live in the United Kingdom, there is also reliable distribution there. I've gone through over a dozen of these discs, and while the notes within each Opus Kura issue are often poorly translated into English, the music is for everyone. The programs generally don't offer too many performances that are unfamiliar to collectors, but the painstakingly restored transfers – often from unexpected or rare sources – generally shed new light on what we claim to have already heard. In the case of Mengelberg, so much of his work is hard to find that these albums are doubly welcome. The conductor has the Concertgebouw playing as well as you could expect from 1940, and more importantly he keeps his mannerisms in check and allows the music to do the talking. Thus we have an elegant Wagner Prelude that compares favorably to anything his colleagues were setting down, and a Don Juan that features some truly excellent orchestral contributions. It's not reference material, but it surpasses early efforts from Clemens Krauss and others; the Concertgebouw sounds wonderful. The sound is good, only losing focus in climaxes within the upper register.

The Brahms Symphony is a curious one. While Mengelberg built a reputation as a heavy-duty meddler, this is notable for being surprisingly straightforward. The Concertgebouw clearly was a great ensemble even during the war years, though for sheer warmth and ensemble cohesion I prefer Bruno Walter's own monophonic account with the New York Philharmonic. Mengelberg does have some unique ideas, especially in regards to tempo, and they don't all convince today, if ever they did. The faster moments of the first movement audibly tax the brass, but the strings are very fine. Still, most other aspects are quite normal, and there are certainly details to appreciate. Veteran listeners will undoubtedly have their own favorite LP-era Brahms, Wagner, and Strauss, but this is certainly worth investigating.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

Trumpet