These recordings were made between 1937 and 1942, and they represent the sum of Mengelberg's commercially released Beethoven for the Telefunken label. There's a great deal more of Mengelberg's Beethoven on disc than this, however. In fact, it is possible to acquire live versions of all nine symphonies. Recently I reviewed a group of four discs on the Italian (and inexpensive!) Iron Needle label. Those discs included all but the Ninth Symphony in live recordings made in 1940. These Telefunken recordings, lovingly produced and transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn, sound better. Both the Iron Needle and Pearl/Telefunken issues are convincing documents of what an imposing conductor Mengelberg was, and how wonderfully the wartime Concertgebouw played.
Mengelberg is not for purists, who sometimes still call him "Mangleberg." His tempos are fluid, to say the least, and he has no hesitation about slowing down or speeding up in mid-phrase to make an (almost always exciting, almost never illogical) interpretive point. He was one of the most emotional conductors of the period; Leonard Bernstein took a page or two from his book. His Beethoven is irrepressibly swaggering and masculine except when it is meltingly tender. And like many of his contemporaries – including, one should add, Arturo Toscanini – Mengelberg made adjustments to Beethoven's scoring and dynamics. Usually, this was done to bring out details normally buried by modern instruments playing in modern concert halls. Limitations in the recording process probably were a factor too. Those who are interested in changing instrumental techniques over the course of the 20th century will hear a sterling example of the old way of doing things in the Concertgebouw's marvelous playing. String vibrato is less prominent in these recordings, and portamenti are used both for expression and to create a living legato.
Collectors should note that the version of the Fifth Symphony included here was recorded in 1937. Another CD label released Mengelberg's 1942 version of the symphony, mistakenly claiming that it was the 1937 version. The error is understandable, because Telefunken confusingly issued both recordings under the same matrix and catalog numbers!
We owe Pearl a debt for making these stimulating recordings available again in fine transfers. Basic repertoire burnout is always a danger, particularly where historic recordings are concerned, but with Mengelberg on the podium, even the unconverted are bound to stay awake.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle