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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Sextet for Strings Op.10† [33:07]
Suite Op.23 for two violins, cello and piano (left hand) [34:59]
Aron Quartet (Ludwig Müller (violin), Barna Kobori (violin), Georg Hamann (viola) and Christophe Pantillon (cello)); Henri Sigfridsson (piano), Thomas Selditz (viola), Màrius Diaz (cello)
rec. Lisztsaal, Raiding, Austria, March 2010†, April 2011 CPO 777 600-2 [68:11]
A child prodigy, Korngold achieved an early peak while in his twenties with his seminal three act opera Die tote Stadt. This CPO release comprises two chamber works in lush romantic language, one written four years before and the other written ten years after Korngold’s operatic masterpiece. So here we have the four Viennese musicians of the Aron Quartet playing music from Korngold who had moved to Vienna with his parents as a young child and for many years considered the Austrian capital his home.
The Sextet is a product of Korngold’s wunderkind years. It is scored for pairs of violins, violas and cellos. Possibly his finest chamber work, it seems that this four movement Sextet was originally planned as a string quartet. The first two movements were sketched out by the spring of 1914. The substantial opening Moderato - Allegro contains lovely flowing music of a genial character. This is followed by an anguished Adagio, beautifully played and darkly mysterious. Highly attractive writing of passionate restraint the Intermezzo has a reflective quality. The highly appealing Presto:Finale is resolutely played with a sure sense of ebullience.
The other score, Korngold’s Suite for two violins, cello and piano (left hand) from 1930 was written for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in the Great War. The Suite is one of a series of works that Wittgenstein commissioned for his own use from Korngold and a number of other composers. I have heard a video clip of the eminent American pianist Leon Fleisher describing the piece as “an amazing work, by an amazing composer” and I agree that it’s a fine work. Cast in five sections, the Präludium und Fuge begins with an extended introduction for solo piano which is here played quite superbly. The prevailing mood is dark and unsettling. Evoking a haunted ballroom, the highly appealing Viennese Waltz section, reflective of romantic innocence could easily have come from the pen of a wistful Richard Strauss. Titled Groteske, the unsettling and jagged Scherzo is vital; at times bewilderingly witty yet capable of sending a shiver down the spine. The tender Lied contains mainly calm and affectionate writing with the piano sensitively played and the leader rendering his solo beautifully. The substantial Finale with its solo cello introduction contains highly melodic writing encompassing contrasting moods.
Wonderfully recorded for CPO at the Lisztsaal at Raiding the Aron’s playing basks in satisfying clarity. The piano is positioned slightly forward in the balance which feels ideal. There is an electrifying rapport between the players who perform with assurance and alert sensitivity. This captivating release is a certainty for my 2014 Records of the Year list.
And a second review ...
It’s strange how passing fads in music can colour how other music is viewed. The post-war devotion to atonality by some critics and programmers lead to many composers of ‘tuneful’ music to be slighted at best and totally ignored at worst. In the 1970s André Previn, a committed fan of Korngold explained to an audience at a concert where he’d just conducted one movement of Korngold’s violin concerto that when it was first published a music critic characterised it as being “more corn than gold”. He then explained how the critic was no longer remembered while Korngold was once again becoming increasingly popular. The critic in question was in fact the New York Sun’s Irving Kolodin who merited a mere three short paragraphs for his obituary in the New York Times. Whole books are written about Korngold with his music being recognised for a wealth of ideas and its downright beautiful melodies.
The violin concerto, given its première by none other than Jascha Heifetz has been recorded since by a myriad of violin superstars such as Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Philippe Quint, Nicola Benedetti, Renaud Capuçon, Nicolai Znaider, James Ehnes, Hilary Hahn, Leonidas Kavakos and many others among the currently available 32 entries. It would be pleasing to think that somewhere Korngold is laughing up his sleeve at the pompous critic.
Like Shostakovich and many others Korngold sought a kind of refuge in composing chamber music. This gave him an oasis of calm following the intense concentration necessary to create orchestral works.
I was interested to read in the accompanying brochure that Korngold’s sextet was originally written as a quartet. This revelation followed the discovery of a manuscript as recently as 2006. By the spring of 1914, aged only seventeen the wundersdolescent as Korngold expert Brendan G. Carroll characterises him, had already roughed out the first two movements. Right from the outset there is a sumptuous quality about the writing that is irresistible. It also a evinces a maturity that goes towards justifying the high regard in which he was held from the very beginning of his career. The decision to adapt the planned quartet for a sextet allowed for the addition of an extra viola and cello. This makes the result richer and enables some interesting juxtapositions of instruments and the counterpoising of different groups. The writing is well ahead of its time sounding as if it comes from at least a decade later. It has an unmistakably ‘Czech’ accent with some elements reminiscent of Dvořàk. That the music sounds so self assured for a composer who was a mere teenager is no surprise. After all, he played his cantata Gold to Mahler at the tender age of 9 eliciting the comment from the maestro that he was a musical genius and recommending that he should study with Zemlinsky. However, it is not only self assurance that comes across but ideas that belie the young age at which it was composed. Feelings of anguish and nostalgia are placed alongside sunnier moments all overlaid with the most gorgeous sonorities and harmonic expression.
Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right hand in the First World War, commissioned several composers to create works for him, some of which he ended up refusing to play. This was not the case with the concerto he commissioned from the 25 year old Korngold. It proved so successful that seven years later he commissioned a chamber work from him and thus the Suite,Op.23 was born. This opens with the piano alone for almost two minutes before it is joined by the other instruments, two violins and cello, a combination chosen to ensure the pianist has no difficulties holding his own against the others. There is dissonance here as well as great beauty and the work is easily identifiable as coming from the inter-war years. The second movement is a waltz which floats along in the most delectable way despite its moments of nostalgia, regret and general bittersweet character. The scherzo which follows is entitled Groteske and is well named as it goes through its paces in a movement as long as the first. Again there are moments of delicious harmony in amongst passages which are often more puckish than devilish. The slow movement, entitled Lied, based on the song Was Du Mir Bist? (What do you mean to me?) is pure unalloyed passion. It’s as gorgeous as anything he ever wrote - what would Mr Kolodin have said about it I wonder. The last movement is in the form of a rondo and variations which are delightfully witty as well as brilliant. It demonstrates yet again how well deserved his reputation was among those who championed him.
Someone said to me that he thought Korngold had ‘sold out’ because he went on to have such a successful career in Hollywood. There he composed some of the most outstanding and thrilling music for films as did so many other ‘serious’ composers such as Miklos Rózsa. Would they also say the same about Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Walton I wonder?
As far as I’m concerned it is satisfying in the extreme to see how Korngold’s chamber works are being dusted down and rediscovered by a new generation of performers. It is well past time that they were introduced to a new audience which will without doubt recognise them as the true works of art they are.
The Aron Quartet and guests play the works beautifully and with obvious reverence and I wish the disc deserved success.