STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40. Don Juan, Op. 20 (two versions)
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Willem Mengelberg, cond.
LYS 418 (F) (ADD) TT: 76:00  


Strauss's symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben was a particular favorite of Willem Mengelberg. The score is dedicated to him and his Amsterdam orchestra, and he performed it often. His 1928 Victor recording with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra is still considered by most to be the definitive interpretation, with surprisingly good sound quality as well. This can be heard in a superb transfer (by Mark Obert-Thorn) on Pearl (GEMM 8). When the Victor recording was made, Mengelberg been performing Heldenleben for almost three decades. His recording was not the first; in the early '20s an acoustic recording was made with Eduard Mörike and the Berlin German Opera House Orchestra, and in 1926 the composer recorded it with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.

It wasn't until 1941 that Mengelberg recorded Heldenleben with his Concertgebouw. Much had happened in the interim, not to the conductor's advantage. He had been accused of being sympathetic with the Nazis and his welcome in the Netherlands was diminishing. He continued to record until November 1942; the major works recorded during this time were Dvorák's Ninth, Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, Schubert's Eighth and Ninth symphonies, and the Tragic Overture of Brahms. It is remarkable that the 1941 Heldenleben has been unavailable on CD except for a Teldec issue of more than a decade ago that offered an muffled transfer that sounded rather like it had been dubbed from a used LP. But now we have it in, for the most part, a superb transfer. There is a minimum of surface noise but brilliance of the original recording has not been sacrificed. This is big, bold sound that captures the rich sound of the Concertgebouw. 

The original sound on this recording always has been rather strange regarding balance. Supposedly Telefunken used a minimal microphone setup, but it sounds as if spot mikes were used on occasion, particularly on the many violin solos which are is overly-prominent most of the time. But brass is dazzling; no question this is the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the height of its glory. There is a horrendous non-splice in the middle of the battle scene - inexcusable!

The performance is powerful. Mengelberg is in a more retrospective mood than he was 13 years earlier; the white-hot intensity that marked the 1928 New York performance is absent, and portamento is used more. Ferdinand Helman's violin solos favor a wide vibrato and suspect intonation; he cannot match the spectacular performance by Guidi Scipione in the New York recording. Both of Mengelberg's recordings of this music are of major interest for all collectors.

Adding to the interest of this CD, we have two performances of Strauss's Don Juan, the first Telefunken's recording of November 1938, the second a live performance recorded by the Dutch Radio December 12, 1940. Mengelberg's performances are impassioned and detailed, with very good sound and balances on both.
(Note:  also read review of Heldenleben on Dutton)

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)