STRAUSS:  Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40.  Death & Transfiguration, Op. 24.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Willem Mengelberg, cond.

NAXOS 8.110161 (B) (ADD) TT:  65:54

Here is another treasure in Naxos' Historical Series offering superb new transfers of two specialties of Willem Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw orchestra.  His interpretation of Ein Heldenleben, a work dedicated by Strauss to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, can be heard in two recordings.  The first, made with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York for Victor in 1928 (available in a Mark Obert-Thorn transfer on Pearl 0008) also was available on RCA in a twin-CD set of Legendary Strauss Recordings (60929) in a transfer by Ward Marston.  The latter also produced another transfer using different takes from the sessions, released on Biddulph, a valuable 2-CD set that also contains the complete 1922-1925 acoustic Mengelberg New York recordings.

The Concertgebouw Heldenleben was recorded April 21, 1941 by Telefunken on ten 78 rpm sides.  It is more expansive reading than the earlier New York recording—much had happened during the interim, with the famed conductor heavily criticized for his supposed support of German invaders resulting in his exile to Switzerland; this is one reason why the more reflective moments in "The Hero's Retreat from the World and Fulfillment" seem particularly poignant. Ferdinand Helman's solo violin is rich with portamento, perhaps too much for some listeners. 

Death and Transfiguration is one of Mengelberg's supreme interpretations, reaching a shattering climax with blazing brass. It was recorded in April 1942, a year after Heldenleben (sessions that also produced excerpts from The Damnation of Faust of Berlioz and Wagenaar's Cyrano de Bergerac Overture). Mengelberg would record with his beloved orchestra one more time, in November 1942, sessions that produced Schubert's symphonies 8 and 9 and several shorter works of Beethoven.  This D&T is quite different from what is heard in the tantalizing fragments (5:36 & 6:07) from a live performance with the New York Philharmonic recorded April 2, 1924 (available in the NYP Historic Broadcasts set).  The earlier recording is of staggering intensity, with a huge tam-tam smash just before the "transfiguration" section, an effect not heard on the Telefunken recording; unfortunately the "transfiguration climax" is not included in the New York excerpts.  The Amsterdam recording is outstanding, the use of portamento in the final pages unlike what is heard in any other recorded performance.

There are other CDs available of both of these Strauss works.  As these new transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn are equal to or superior to any previous issues, and available at budget price, they are highly recommended.  I understand Naxos has plans to issue more Mengelberg recordings—we await them eagerly.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2002)