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Tchaikovsky: 1812; Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Borodin: In The Steppes Of Central Asia / Mengelberg, Concertgebouw

Brahms / Borodin / Mengelberg
Release Date: 03/12/2013 
Label:  Opus Kura   Catalog #: 2104   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsAlexander BorodinPeter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Willem Mengelberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Symphony No. 4. BORODIN In the Steppes of Central Asia. TCHAIKOVSKY 1812 Overture Willem Mengelberg, cond; Concertgebouw O OPUS KURA 2104, mono (63: 14)

It’s an odd thing, but some orchestras of the past had problems—large and small—with the musical flow and rhythmic accents of the Brahms Fourth, and the 1938 Concertgebouw is no exception. Listen, for instance, to the Read more quirky and oddly clumsy crossrhythms within the first two minutes of the first movement: an indication of further problems to come and, as I say, they weren’t alone. Toscanini’s 1935 BBC Symphony broadcast performance is just as bad here; in fact, the first movement is an absolute mess, with the orchestra seemingly clueless as to how to phrase and shape this music and ending up making technical errors as well. (Toscanini’s later versions of this work with the Philharmonia and NBC Symphony are much better if not perfect.) Technical blemishes aren’t the problem here, although those familiar with the Concertgebouw of Mengelberg’s time will note the harsh and not terribly cohesive string sound. For a man who was known as an excellent orchestra builder, I always wondered about this flaw in his own orchestra. Couldn’t he hear how rough the strings were? And if he did, couldn’t he have fixed them?

Once past the quirky syncopated passages in the first movement, however, the musical flow gets better, and Mengelberg is able to elicit a fine mood from his forces. Possibly because the string tone was somewhat thin-sounding as well as harsh, the winds emerge much clearer here than in many modern recordings; in fact, one is continually aware of them, and this adds considerable interest to the texture as the performance continues. This may also have something to do with the simpler rhythmic structure of the second movement, in which Mengelberg brings out a wonderfully pensive quality; but later on, a bit too much string portamento lends the music a slightly saccharine quality in one passage. The final passacaglia, however, is simply magnificent, one of the finest performances of it I’ve ever heard.

Oddly, Mengelberg also has some rhythmic problems with Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. It’s a good performance, but Borodin with a German accent, not as convincing as the nearly contemporary recording by Albert Coates with the London Symphony Orchestra for HMV. On the other hand, despite somewhat measured tempos, he builds the drama of the 1812 Overture with wonderful tension and an almost theatrical quality, moving from section to section in a sure-footed manner that binds the work together quite well. And no, I don’t really mind that the Russian church bells are recessed in sound or that the cannon (if indeed it was a cannon, and not just a timpani whack) is recessed. Musical values always trump 4D sound.

According to Wikipedia, musicologist and music theorist Walter Frisch complained that Mengelberg’s tempo fluctuations in his Brahms performances “too often tend(s) to obscure the broader shape of a passage or movement,” yet Frisch apparently discovered no such distortion of the musical line in the far more distorted performances of two conductors he admired the most, Hermann Abendroth and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Personally, I’ve always found Mengelberg—with the exceptions of his broadcast performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Pasion and the Mahler Fourth Symphony—to be far less mannered in tempo fluctuations than most German conductors of the Abendroth-Furtwängler school. An exception here, however, is the last movement of the Brahms Fourth, where his rallentandos are so extreme that the musical flow nearly comes to a halt, although in the latter section of this movement his enlivening rhythmic thrust is energetic and quite moving.

As for the sound quality, this one borders a bit too much on the gritty side for my taste. As harsh as the Concertgebouw strings of this period were, Opus Kura’s decision to leave in so much hiss and grit makes them sound even harsher. Nevertheless, the forward quality of the original discs (made for Telefunken) does add some presence to the orchestra. There is just enough natural hall sound to offset the closeness of the microphone placement, especially for the French horns, which sound absolutely wonderful. In the third movement, one can actually hear the triangle in the quiet passages, an altogether astonishing thing for a recording of this vintage.

This Brahms Fourth was previously issued on the Legacy label with the second symphony and on Dante Records Lys with the Academic Festival Overture. I haven’t heard these, but I’ve heard enough Mengelberg recordings on both Naxos (from back in the days when they could export them to America) and Pristine Classical, and can attest that overall the sound here is realistic if not as clean as one would like. On balance, then, a valuable reissue.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Willem Mengelberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1884-1885; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1938 
In the steppes of central Asia by Alexander Borodin
Conductor:  Willem Mengelberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1941 
1812 Overture, Op. 49 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Willem Mengelberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1940 

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