Tuesday, June 3, 2014

OBIT | Willem Mengelberg, Concertgebouw Conductor 1895-1945

Willem Mengelberg (1861-1951)
I have written on the website about the connection between the Boissevain family and the Concertgebouw, and the hiring of William Mengelberg.

In brief, it was an inspired selection. Mengelberg became a great interpreter of Mahler's work.

The Boissevain Foundation Bulletin has an excellent article on Charles E. H Boissevain, eldest son of the publisher of the Algemeen Handelsblad, and the family's involvement in the creation and sustenance of the Concertgebouw.

An earlier issue of the Bulletin described the relationship between Willem Mengelberg and Charles E. H., who served on the Board of the orchestra. They had a falling out and Charles resigned with a protest.

Mengelberg, 1902
It was a bad move for Mengelberg because later, after World War 2, he needed all the friends he could. He did not have enough to save him from having his honors and his pension taken away by the Queen for what was described as his collaboration with the German Occupation. Mengelberg did what the Brits said to do – he  kept calm and carried on. His defenders pointed out that Mengelberg saved many Jewish musicians from deportation, but that was not enough to save him. His worst punishment may have been his exile to Switzerland, where he died. He never led an orchestra again after the end of the war. The charges against him were made in the heat of the postwar Hatchet Days and many feel that Mengelberg was mistreated–but, if true, it is understandable given the pain and losses of the Dutch during the Occupation.

The following excerpts from posts by Arthur Bloomfield are reviews of recordings of the music conducted by William Mengelberg and give a flavor of what he served up to his Amsterdam fans. It also shows the program going on during the Nazi Occupation.

For the full notes by Bloonfield, see
The excerpt that follows is abbreviated to focus entirely on Mengelberg; occasionally the punctuation is corrected where the writer's meaning is clear but the parsing is a puzzle.
[Joseph] 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 57th 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 16 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 30 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 . . .
1-4-1926 — 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 
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: 
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.
6-24-35 — 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) — 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 laid-back 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.
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.
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. [Link is disabled - click on link at top to hear.]
And I like the tension of a first movement tempo held a couple notches below Beethoven’s stated 100.
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”) — TANNHAEUSER OVERTURES 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 1926 and 1932.
Sep 13, 2011 - Uploaded by petrof4056
Concertgebouw Amsterdam conducting by Willem Mengelberg. Rec. 9th May 1932.
Jun 4, 2009 - Uploaded by herblich1
Willem Mengelberg conducts the Concertgebouworkest, playing the "Tannhäuser " ouverture by ...
Find album reviews, stream songs, credits and award information for Tchaikovsky : Symphony No. 5; Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture - Willem Mengelberg on ...
Naxos Records WAGNER, R.: Overtures / STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan (Mengelberg) (1926-1940). Wagner, Richard. Tannhauser: Overture (Dresden version) …
Willem Mengelberg Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Tannhäuser Overture ( Dresden version) (1845) Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I (1850) Die Meistersinger von …
Sep 27, 2005 - FREE SHIPPING on orders of $25 or more. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture by Opus Kura, Willem Mengelberg.
Preview songs from Mengelberg: Wagner / R. Strauss / Mahler by Willem ... Tannhauser Overture (Dresden Version), Willem Mengelberg, 13:29, Album Only  …
Preview songs from Mengelberg: Wagner / R. Strauss / Mahler by Willem ... Tannhauser Overture (Dresden Version), Willem Mengelberg, 13:29, Album Only  …

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. [Music link disabled. Click on link at top to access.]
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. . .[Music link disabled - click on link at top to access.]
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.”
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.

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