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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 (1909) [32:12]
Suite for piano (left hand), two violins and cello (1934) [36:20]
Trio Parnassus (Chia Chou (piano); Yamei Yu (violin); Michael Gross (cello)); Matthias Wollong (violin, Suite)
rec. Furstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, 17-19 November 2006


Both these pieces have good showings in the current catalogue, but I think this is the first time they’ve been paired together, and it makes good sense.

The Trio is an amazingly assured work for a not-quite-teenager, bold in its harmonic language and generous in its melodic ideas. Indeed, it’s easy to see why Korngold scholars hold this piece up as the epitome of his youthful genius, pointing out that virtually everything we have come to love in the mature composer can be found here. The first movement’s glorious second subject - first heard around 1:50 - fair sweeps you off your feet with its Rachmaninov-like dash. The cheeky chromatic side-stepping of the following scherzo obviously puts one in mind of Richard Strauss, but at the same time sounds like pure Korngold and it’s no surprise to learn that later the resourceful 16-year-old composer reused its main theme in his first opera, Der Ring des Polykrates (1913). Slow movements were always his forte, as it were, and the larghetto here is no exception, warm, generous melody underpinned by an exotic bed of harmony. The young man knew  he was inviting comparison with Beethoven by labelling a Piano Trio as his Opus 1, and the energetic finale rounds off what must be one of the most confident, brilliant and mature works by a 12-year-old in history – Mendelssohn and Mozart notwithstanding. It’s no wonder it took the Viennese public by storm and was taken up by the starry trio of Bruno Walter, Friedrich Buxbaum and Arnold Rosé. The Trio Parnassus invests it with all the vigour required and Chia Chou clearly enjoys the virtuosic piano part that the composer himself played so often.

The Suite of 1934 is recognizably from the same hand, but the writing is that bit more complex, rich and daring. The instrumental layout is quite original, and is another Wittgenstein commission to go along with the Left Hand Concerto Korngold had written for him in 1923. Here I’m not quite as convinced by the Parnassus’s approach, which for me misses some of the work’s tenderness and lyricism. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the 1998 all-star Sony version featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Silverstein, Jaime Laredo and Leon Fleisher, a performance which is a tad slower in every movement without losing energy, but seems to radiate love of the music. The slow movement, aptly entitled Lied, is a real Mahlerian lament for old Vienna, with the yearning appoggiaturas and sighing upbeats of the Fifth Symphony’s famous adagietto the obvious model. Here, the

Parnassus’s cellist betrays the odd intonation problem in the cruelly exposed chromatic bass lines, whilst the piano sounds like it needs the attention of a tuner in certain registers. It’s quite a bold, incisive performance overall, and maybe I wouldn’t be quite so critical if I hadn’t lived with the Sony disc for so long, so newcomers probably won’t have too much to complain about, especially as the Sony appears to be deleted at present.

The sound is quite resonant for intimate chamber music, but as with other Trio Parnassus discs, there’s a real spirit and energy which has its own listening rewards, especially in the Op.1 Trio. The music itself is the epitome of glorious late-Romanticism, and if you like the coupling – which is possibly the most sensible there is – you can certainly buy with confidence.

Tony Haywood



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