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Home Society The dusty recordings reveal for the first time the splendor of Mengelberg’s vision of Bach’s “Matthäus”.

The dusty recordings reveal for the first time the splendor of Mengelberg’s vision of Bach’s “Matthäus”.

by News Room
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of The Passion of St. Matthew Conducted by Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), JS Bach’s work became a household name after its first performance in 1899. The chief conductor of the then non-royal Concertgebouw orchestra became world famous with it. Mengelberg created the Dutch St. Matthew tradition of annual Palm Sunday performances at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. At the time, for audiences, his monumental interpretations, adorned with 400 choirs, were untouchable.

This integrity was shaken when Mengelberg’s recording was made in 1939 Matthew released on CD. In addition to pathos, extra and beautifully behaved singers, modern ears also heard noise and ticking, sometimes even serious distortion in pre-war mono. They heard a jumbled echo of a musical concept from another era. At first hearing, the large choral settings and solemnly recited recitatives, where the great singers weighed every word, were closer in their sacred atmosphere to Wagner Parsifal as with the pious conversion of old Luther.

Generations that grew up with the views of Bach by Baroque masters such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Philippe Herreweghe experienced Matthew different: faster tempi, smaller assemblies, less or no vibrato, more transparent sound.

On the other hand: Did you get to evaluate Mengelberg’s vision? The lack of depth, space and height of the recording made us guess the aural reality of the music that changed people’s lives before the war.

For this reason, Mengelberg’s biographer Frits Zwart, on behalf of the Willem Mengelberg Society, asked sound director Jochem Geene to re-examine the recording material. Geene, originally a pianist, previously had Mengelberg’s recordings of Mahler Fourth Symphony Beethoven’s Seventh in Ninth Symphony returned. The vastly improved details of the sound turned out to be phenomenal, timeless interpretations.

New technology helped: noise, ticking and coughing can be removed with surgical precision. Geene is able to precisely locate the intruders on the screens of his Veenendaal studio. “Look, here it’s red in an area where it’s not common.” Cough. He can make it disappear without leaving a hole in the voice. “The software only removes the clutter. The software reconstructs what’s behind it, like Photoshop reconstructs the environment behind a digitally removed lamppost. Look, there’s a noise band here. That bluish area between 8 and 10 kilohertz is typical noise. Early noise suppressors targeted the whole area, including the sound. Now I give the command ‘register noise’ for the program and the music remains undisturbed.The s-sounds of the choirs would be removed from other noise suppressors, because they interfere with the material far too roughly.

Stereo suggestion

Great, that obstacle was taken. But Geene wanted and continued. “The technicians agree that you should keep your fingers off such a recording. It must remain truly mono. What fascinates me about it is that the Concertgebouw still exists. We know what the great hall sounds like and what it probably sounded like when Mengelberg was in charge there. The acoustics haven’t changed and the orchestra doesn’t sound very different, only the interpretations differ.” Was that hall sound reconstructable?

Jochem Gene
Photo by Dieuwertje Bravenboer

Opmaat was the first joint project of The Mengelberg Society and Geene: registration of the performance Fourth Symphony Conducted by Mahler Mengelberg. Frits Zwart: “When I came to Jochem, it turned out that it was not possible to get it on one CD, it had to be two. I decided to complement it with works by Strauss, Death and Transfiguration in Don Juan.”

Geene: “Then I said, ‘Can I try something?’ I started turning the knobs and played the recording. This creates reflections and thus time differences between the left and right of the audio image.” For the non-geeks: You’re going to create a stereo effect.

Black: “Influence Death and Transfiguration was wonderful. As if you were really in the audience. I was done. I thought we should do this with the other recordings as well. This way you can get back something of the sensation, the experience that Mengelberg created at that time. The reactions were positive. And the reviews were also purely about the music; Mengelberg’s military history, which was false before and during World War II, was not even discussed.

Monk work

With this merit, Geene was able to start working Matthew. The new software opened new paths. It can add overtones to make instruments sound richer and even simulate the reverberation of a recording venue. At the push of a button, the acoustics of the world’s largest concert halls, such as the Concertgebouw or the Boston Symphony Hall, are displayed.

This is how Geene Mengelberg was able to posthumously restore the sound space in his hall that had been erased by the mono recording. “The developers fire a pistol shot in the respective rooms. This is recorded, allowing you to record the reverberation feature on a room-by-room basis. They filter the attack and place it, as it were, in the material you want to reverberate from, to get your original Concertgebouw or Boston sound back.

Based on this, the geek can create stereo effects in the resulting space. Geene pointed to his screens: “Look, this is a stereo expander. This is about introducing almost random delays in a series of frequency bands, another tool on the way to stereo. What it means is to suggest to the ear that the sounds are coming from the left or the right. You place the voices and instruments in space, as it were, and create hence the stereo proposition.”

With such tricks, high technology can lie to the public about the truth. It’s a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. No matter how brilliantly the digital magic box works, the real work is done by the ear. And with an 85-year-old recording, you always have to make compromises.

You can never completely get rid of distortion, says Geene. “It’s because of the way Philips did the recording. It used a film soundtrack. Where it got loud and harsh, the knife cut a wide line into the celluloid of that film, but it was more precise around the edges. You can hear it in the strongest parts of the choruses. I’ve tried everything I can to fix it with existing software and I’ve come very far. But even the top British company Cedar, which also fixes old FBI and CIA tapes, didn’t seem to have a solution for it. So whatever distortion remains, we have to accept.”

Willem Mengelberg director’s score
Collection of the Netherlands Institute of Music

Poster at a concert in Paris in 1908
Collection of the Netherlands Institute of Music

Geene spent hundreds of hours on his monk’s work, often at night. It wasn’t for nothing. In the virtual space of the restoration, Mengelberg’s glory comes to life again. Geene: “When I compared the first results with the original mono recording, I was shocked by the difference. How it sounds now says a lot more about how good the show was. It also sounds more natural because the sound becomes three-dimensional and changes the whole experience. Logically, you won’t hear depth in mono. But if you’re in a hall as a singer or a conductor of Mengelberg’s caliber, you also use the hall’s acoustics to express yourself.”

What seemed like the overloaded pathos of the recitatives now manifests as a warm, humble surrender to the messages of the Passion – with the open breathing of the audience. “Space carries it,” says Geene. In his opinion, the changes in tempo, which modern listeners perceive as a lack of style or exaggerated, also hit the spot. “Each rubato (freedom in tempo, ed.) has a background. Often because the text points to something and Mengelberg explains it by slowing down for a moment. You hear him choose a certain tempo to emphasize the words, you hear him always put those effects into the space in which he performed the music. You can call it influence, but influence is also innuendo, which is closely related. And he doesn’t get sentimental here, even though the chorales sometimes sound like Rachmaninoff’s orthodox choir.”

The rest are emotions, says Geene. “I hear incredible humility in everything. It’s so beautifully and lovingly sung.” Whether it’s stylish by today’s standards is irrelevant to him. “Everything Mengelberg does is well thought out, logical and sincere. You will hear why he almost wiped out most conductors of his time. I sat here, heard the first recitatives and was immediately deeply moved. So calm, without shouting and without the fast tempos that are often too high for singers today. Mengelberg always takes his time, even in an aria.” For feelings, for a story “without ego or any kind of virtuosity.”

Frits Zwart thinks the same way. “Mengelberg wants to convey a message. You don’t need a textbook with him. Everything is incredibly precisely crafted. Mengelberg once asked the musicologist Eduard Reeser: “Does your aunt in the back row understand what you say when you give a lecture?”. That was important to him. Whatever you think of this interpretation; Listen first, try to let go of your current vision.”


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