On its St-Laurent Studio label, the restorer of Quebec sound documents Yves St-Laurent publishes a disturbing concert by Willem Mengelberg recorded on January 20, 1944 by the Grand Orchester de Radio-Paris. A unique and poignant interpretation of the Symphony nO 6, “Pathetic” of Tchaikovsky which raises a number of questions.
Thus, a Dutch conductor of German origin, banished after the war for Nazi connections, conducts a French orchestra in the most emblematic Russian symphony, at the time when the German army loses the war on the Russian front. Everything is broadcast on the hated radio of the Nazi occupier in Paris.
What is wrong with this equation? The question becomes more difficult when one knows the musical legacy of Mengelberg and one hears, of course, “his” Pathétique, but in a dantesque vision which adds two minutes to both the first and the last movement.
What are Mengelberg and the orchestra telling us here? Could they do it that way, with so much tension and risk, if they weren’t in the musical phase, even ideological?
“A long and meticulous restoration was necessary to correct the many technical flaws in this recording. Its extreme rarity and its artistic and historical interest justify its distribution, ”writes Yves St-Laurent in the notice. It is true that it itches and hisses a little. But what we hear is fascinating.
The scarcity was more than extreme. At the Liberation, the premises of Radio-Paris were ransacked and destroyed. All concert recordings were therefore deemed to have disappeared. However, “three complete sets of Pyral discs of live recordings were stolen, kept intact for 65 years, found wrapped in newspaper in a cellar and offered for sale at the Lyon flea market at the end of 2008”, reports the Duty their buyer at the time, collector Jean Farjanel, from Lyon.
A long and meticulous restoration was necessary to correct the many technical flaws in this recording. Its extreme rarity and its artistic and historical interest justify its dissemination.
“The absence of names on the wax or the labels of the Pyral discs (aluminum discs covered with a layer of lacquer) discouraged other buyers”, laughs Mr. Farjanel.
The records purchased by Jean Farjanel contained concerts given by conductor Willem Mengelberg on January 16 and 20, 1944. They were first released on CD by the French label Malibran. Today, they are in the possession of Eric Derom and the Mengelberg Foundation in Amsterdam, source of Yves St-Laurent’s publication.
Willem Mengelberg is, along with Weingartner, Toscanini, Walter, Klemperer and Furtwängler, one of the legends of pre-war orchestral conducting. His city is Amsterdam. A true maniac, Mengelberg covers his scores with annotations with red and blue grease pencils. He annotates the scores of the instrumentalists in the same way, which makes it possible to recognize his interpretive paw, even his tics, since Mengelberg is a hyperexpressive conductor.
There are two versions of the Pathetic symphony under his direction, recorded for Telefunken in 1937 and 1941. It is therefore easy to anticipate him in this work and to hear what dramatic weight, particularly dazzling, he charges this concert.
So the fundamental questions arise. Someone is saying something here. But what ? And to whom? Who is this audience and what is it applauding? Beyond that, what do we like? What makes us vibrate? It would be very uneasy if these were the miasmas of Nazi barbarism.
Reference books for the period – Music in Paris under the Occupation, by Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon (Fayard) and The Shameful Peace, by Frederic Spotts (Yale University Press) – are not very vocal on the subject. Potts classifies Mengelberg’s appearances, notably in 1941 and 1942, under the heading “Massive cultural assault”. A more subtle and detailed approach is needed here.
First of all, the Pathetic was a repertoire banned in Germany since the reversal of the German-Soviet pact. The fact of seeing Mengelberg impose it in occupied zones (Paris, then Amsterdam) in 1944 does not seem to be the work of a leader committed to the Nazi cause.
As for the broadcaster, Jean Frajanel underlines that “Radio-Paris existed before the war, since 1923, as a private radio station, and was annexed in 1940, for propaganda purposes”. The orchestra included, for example, on timpani Pierre Dervaux, future conductor and musical director of the Orchester symphonique de Québec (OSQ) (1968-1975) and had Paul Tortelier as principal cello.
On January 16, Tortelier and Mengelberg put on the program the Cello Concerto by Dvořák. As the booklet for the Malibran publication underlines, in its Briefs, Tortelier affirms that through his concerto “Dvořák engages the heroic fight of a man for the independence of his country”. This alter ego concertant militant can be found on “Mengelberg, vol. 1 ”, while the Pathetic is associated with Concerto nO 2 of Chopin by the very collaborator Alfred Cortot.
To warm up
There is no doubt that Radio-Paris was ideologically sullied on all sides, but in practice, concerts were cultural bread for everyone. Willem Mengelberg’s concerts were a high point one could only dream of. Mengelberg conducted the orchestra 29 times between 1942 and 1944. Eric Derom recalls a word from cellist Maurice Gendron saying that the conductor had “tamed the orchestra like a horse”.
As for the public, who do we hear applauding? Dignitaries of the occupying forces, pampered collaborators or people of Paris? Jean Farjanel explored the question. “The public concerts were held in the evening and were free. We know that the audience was made up of people eager for music (especially young people) and icy Parisians (one of the harshest winters) who came here to warm up. The paying concerts, on the other hand, attracted a wide range of listeners, the hall could even be exclusively composed of German soldiers to the great discomfort of the musicians. “
In summary, according to this music lover who is a history lover who was passionate about his discovery: “Tortelier and Mengelberg, four days apart, on January 16 and 20, 1944, delivered the same message and the same passionate fighting spirit, to to know that we must fight against the tyranny of the occupier. “Moreover,” no music lover could then ignore the meaning of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky’s interpretations.
If this is the truth behind the notes we hear, we are even more inconsolable about the other forever lost documents. Mengelberg, who had lost his wife three months earlier (a more intimate explanation, but one cannot be overlooked), conducted seven concerts in January 1944 and five in February, as well as a Beethoven cycle in May and June. . What wouldn’t we give to hear these Beethovens, the 1re and the 3e of Brahms, the 5e of Tchaikovsky?
The concert of the 9e Symphony of Beethoven in Paris, on June 18, 1944, will be the last conducted for life by Willem Mengelberg. He died in 1951, in Switzerland, two months before the end of a ban imposed after the war. He never understood this opprobrium, he who had continued his activities because “like the sun, music must be there for all people”. A music activist, Mengelberg was still conducting Mahler’s music in 1940, then known as “degenerate”, and had protected the jobs of the Jewish musicians in his orchestra.
So, Mengelberg “Nazi musician”? What if music gives us the answer?