Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mengelberg in Mahler

I spent an interesting hour listening to Mahler's 4th symphony played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra at a concert on the 9th November 1939 in Amsterdam, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg, the orchestra and Mahler all knew each other well, so there was a fascinating air of authenticity about the performance. Was this how Mahler conducted it? (Mengelberg was present at the first performance, and worked on the conducting score with the composer).

I found the performance fascinating in the degree of personal involvement between conductor and the score. One feels Mengelberg's love of the work, and notices how many conductors – especially in the pre 1945 decades – took what was later called “liberties” with the score. Tempi are manipulated constantly. After 1945, the stern doctrine ascribed to Toscanini came to be fashionable, but there were always conductors who felt free to bring their individual thoughts and feelings to a work: conductors such as Furtwängler, Walter – and Mengelberg. In the 1950s, Toscanini and Furtwängler were classed as the leaders of the opposing traditions. In Britain, it might have been John Barbirolli versus Adrian Boult. At the present time, it might be Christian Thielemann versus Riccardo Chailly. Pre-war, Otto Klemperer was something of an exception; a major German conductor who stuck strictly to the score. We are not used to hearing music beamed through a personal medium and, to many, Mahler's 4th as played by Mengelberg will sound strange and maybe a little bizarre. In music, however, it's the end result that counts and I would rather hear Mengelberg's idiosyncratic performance as here, than Mr X's scrupulous adhesion to the letter of the score. Just as I would rather listen to Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony than hear the latest “authentic” band trying to reconstruct what they imagine Beethoven's first audience might have heard. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that is especially true in musical performance.

I like Mahler's 4th symphony (actually, it's the only Mahler symphony I like since I first met it in 1958 conducted by Paul Kletzki, still a splendid “straight” version). Everyone needs the work conducted by Kletzki, Mengelberg, Klemperer and Walter; four conductors with close connections to the work, four very different views of the work, four admirable results.

No comments: