The Storytelling Talent of Willem Mengelberg

Perhaps it’s a newly-found dedication to investigating the legacy of musicians no longer discussed for the sake of the latest trend. Perhaps it’s being involved a project at work to perform and record what seems like all the Mahler symphonies. Maybe it’s the phenomenon of sentimentality brought on by knowing you have fewer years in front of you than you have behind you.

Whatever the reason may be, I have been led recently to listen to the recorded works of some great musicians of the past. I don’t listen to them analytically… well, at lest not yet… but I listen to them and allow the visceral nature of their interpretations to work their magic. A few weeks ago I finally took heed of an admonition of a conductor I knew named James Paul, may he rest in peace, and have started checking out the interpretations of a couple of Dutch conductors. One is Eduard von Beinum and the second is one I have known of for quite a while, Willem Mengelberg.

If his name sounds more German than it does Dutch, it is for good reason, as his parents were ethnically German but who emigrated to the Netherlands earlier. That’s about as much biographical information as I care to get into, for the moment. You can certainly do the necessary research online, if you like.

What moved me to write a little about him was just to bring attention to his willingness to risk with his interpretations. It is fascinating to me to hear versions of music I thought I knew well until I heard his take on a piece that I have loved for many, many years, the Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

I’m not going to say whether his interpretation is “the right and ultimate one” for that is just foolishness reserved for lunch tables at universities and such where the young seek ultimate examples to be used to prove a point. I’ve been there and done that, as they say.

I am merely here to say that I have been moved by a man who possessed an ability to do what teacher of mine every time I put my mouthpiece to my lips: “be a storyteller.”

When I heard this linked, live performance of Mahler’s G Major I felt as though I had been tucked into bed and read a bedtime story by a master storyteller complete with all the character voices. There are tremendous number of risks taken and I can only imagine the rehearsals must have been painstaking, unimaginably so, but there’s the point: the performance is so supple and fluid that it sounds as though it were being improvised on the spot! The man had a tremendous gift for putting all the parts together in order to say something.

What he says, in my opinion, is magical and warmhearted. So, without desire to influence your opinion more than I already may have, here’s the link to the live performance from 1939 with the Royal Concertgebuouw Orchestra.

Mahler’s G Major Symphony, Live at the Concertgebuouw 1939 with Mengelberg

 By the way, I strongly suggest this recording not be used as background music while you’re involved in doing your taxes or some other activity that will take you away from the opportunity to listen in an active way.  That would be like obtaining the original Mona Lisa and hanging it in a room of your choice because it goes well with the furniture and basic color scheme.

2 thoughts on “The Storytelling Talent of Willem Mengelberg


    Mengelberg was a remarkable conductor who poured emotion into everything he conducted. No One has ever topped his Les Preludes and his emotionally charged St Matthew Passion recorded as WW2 loomed on the horizon must not be missed if you can find it. Okay. so the “portamento” is out of style but it really worked under these circumstances.. In his day you could tell who was conducting a piece without looking on the label–especially true of Megwelberg and maybe Toscanini. Don’t miss these two recordings in particular


  2. Jason Woods

    I loved this recording. Thank you for sharing the discovery. For myself, I find it so hard in classical music to “explore” For example, I can listen to multiple versions of “So What” but if I veer away from my 1978 Atlanta Symphony recording of the Firebird it kills me. Maybe there are just too many ideas to explore in classical music that I gravitate to comfort. Wonderful problems to have in life anyway! 🙂 Thanks again!


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