If back in the days of LP’s someone dropped the needle of a phonograph on a disc and asked the listener to name the very famous Korngold tune being played, most opera lovers would have quickly responded with “Marietta’s Song” from Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera The Dead City.
But that was then, and now few classical music fans will be able to quickly identify, let alone embrace the music of the Austrian-born, adoptive American composer. Too bad, for Korngold’s prolific output of orchestral music and operas far and beyond his many film scores qualifies him in our view as one of the 20th century’s most interesting composers.
But not all in life is fair and in the business of music – high or middle brow – much less so, subject as composers and performers are to the slings and arrows of opinionated critics. Leonard Bernstein was known to have said: “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.” And Erich Korngold, hugely successful as a creator of film scores was never celebrated by the statue-less snobbish music critics of Europe and later by those of his adopted America as the truly gifted composer he was, black-marked first by the Nazis as a Jew who composed entartete Kunst and later dismissed by critics as a tunesmith who wrote trash for Hollywood flicks.
Hats off then to the fast-rising British conductor John Wilson, to the superb Sinfonia of London, and to the CHANDOS label for bringing out KORNGOLD (CHSA 5220), a 2019 super audio CD nicely produced by Brian Pidgeon, and impeccably engineered by Ralph Couzens. The insightful liner notes by Brendan G. Carroll provide both valuable biographical information on Korngold and in-depth musicological analysis of the three pieces included in the recording.
The Symphony in F sharp, op. 40 is a huge, massively orchestrated work, 45 minutes in length. The indication of its tonality as F sharp but its home key remains very fluid and polytonal, as the music travels both in tonality and in its peculiarly changing tempo markings in each of its four movements.
Korngold emphatically denied that his source of inspiration was “…the terror and horrors of the years 1933-1945…” calling this work pure music. Yet the somber, elegiac mood of the Adagio and the jagged harmonic and rhythmic contours of the first two movements bespeak emotional upheavals that are not allayed until the redemptive finale of this masterful work, here given a gripping, emotion-laden performance by John Wilson and his orchestra: https://youtu.be/8juOCrBQnaY
The album also features a Theme and Variations and a Straussiana for Orchestra, both 1953 late works, both lushly Romantic, both delightful, both flawlessly played by the protean Sinfonia of London with Wilson at its helm.
The album, pun intended is pure Korngold gold and fully deserves: ***** as an outstanding contribution to the libraries of serious collectors.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com