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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 - 1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1947) [23:43]
Overture to a Drama, Op. 4 (1911) [13:31]
Much Ado About Nothing - Concert Suite, Op. 11 (1920) [16:13]
Philippe Quint (violin)
Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria/Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. Sala Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico City, August 2007
NAXOS 8.570791 [53:40]
Experience Classicsonline

He certainly had an auspicious start to his musical career: the child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Born in Brünn (today Brno) he grew up in Vienna from the age of four. His father, Julius, had then succeeded the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick at the Neuen Freien Presse. He played the piano at a very early age and when he was nine Gustav Mahler observed his enormous talent and arranged that Alexander von Zemlinsky became his teacher and mentor. In his early teens he became known to the general public and over the following years a whole range of works were premiered. The list of musicians performing them is a veritable musicians’ Who’s Who. Artur Schnabel played his second piano sonata Op. 2 in 1911; the same year Artur Nikisch premiered his Overture Op. 4 (one of the works on the present disc); Felix von Weingartner played his Sinfonietta, Op 5, Bruno Walter took care of his first two operas, Der Ring des Polycrates and Violanta and Maria Jeritza, who sang Violanta in Vienna¸ also took the role of Marietta in Die tote Stadt at the American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1921 - the work having already had a double premiere in Hamburg and Cologne the previous year. This opera was probably his greatest success but during the 1920s some of the interest in his music waned, and when he moved to USA in the mid-1930s and started writing film scores for Warner Bros, he practically abandoned his classical composing.

After the war he took up his classical side again but with little success. When he passed away he was more or less forgotten. The revival came in the mid-1970s when almost simultaneously RCA released Die tote Stadt, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, and also launched the justly famous series with recordings of classical Hollywood scores, conducted by Charles Gerhardt and with George Korngold - the composer’s son - as producer. Two of these volumes were devoted to Korngold’s film music and it was through them I became fascinated by his very special sound-world. Truth to tell there had been some earlier recordings, most famous no doubt, Jascha Heifetz’s recording of the violin concerto. Heifetz was the one who premiered the concerto in 1947. Rudolf Kempe conducted the symphony in 1972, and if I remember correctly it was also originally released by RCA, who also recorded the string quartets with the Chilingirian Quartet.

Since then there has been a wealth of recordings. All his operas are now available, Chandos recorded most of his orchestral works with Edward Downes and Mathias Bamert as conductors. Several complete film scores have also been released, so today admirers of Korngold’s music have a plethora from which to choose.

The violin concerto is presumably his most recorded work and any newcomer has to challenge not only Heifetz but also Itzhak Perlman and Gil Shaham and a host of others. There is even an earlier issue on Naxos (8.553579) with Vera Tsu, coupled with Goldmark’s concerto.

Philippe Quint has by now a quite extended discography, of which I have to admit I have heard fairly little. Some years ago I had, however, the pleasure to review his recording of Bernstein’s Serenade, a more than full-size violin concerto with a playing time of over half an hour. I found him utterly convincing, though in comparison with Gidon Kremer on Bernstein’s own DG recording, I thought Kremer was more intense. This may have something to do with the actual tone; Kremer has a darker, more rounded tone, while Quint is rather thinner. This is also the drawback with the Korngold concerto. There are few works in the whole violin concerto repertoire with more surging romantic melodies - some people call them sentimental and over-sweet; they need a romantic approach. My favourite recording since the seventies is an EMI LP with the German Ulf Hoelscher, accompanied by the South German Radio Symphony Orchestra under Willy Mattes. Hoelscher has the warm tone that makes these wonderful melodies sing - and he doesn’t add saccharine. There is no need to - Korngold has already provided enough. Where Quint is superb is in the third movement: vivid, technically brilliant and rhythmically assured.

The Mexican orchestra play with brilliance and confidence and the excellent recording lays bare the marvellous orchestration, which we recognize from Korngold’s supreme film scores. This concerto in particular has close connections to the Warner Bros years, since Korngold has recycled themes from three of his foremost film scores.

The Overture to a Drama, Op. 4, written when the composer was still wearing short trousers, is a remarkable piece. The thematic work is mature and the orchestration, especially bearing in mind that this was his first independent orchestral composition, is so sure-footed. Not as lush as his scoring was to become a few years later there are still more than traces of the superb film music composer-to-be.

The suite from the incidental music to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (the German title is ‘Viel Lärm um nichts’) was also included on the Hoelscher LP. It is remarkable how many ravishing colours he conjures forth with the rather limited instrumental forces available. The ensemble includes harmonium as well as piano, cleverly incorporated in the fabric. The complete incidental music comprised fourteen numbers but Korngold compiled the suite Op. 11 and performed it in January 1920, several months before the premiere of the play at the Schönbrunn Palace Theatre. He also arranged the music for various chamber music constellations since he knew beforehand that the full ensemble of musicians wouldn’t be available all the time during the run of the play. The five movements of the suite are entertaining and atmospheric. The overture chats light-heartedly; Bridal Morning is rather melancholy - she has obviously second thoughts; Dogberry and Verges depicts the drunken nightwatchmen; the Intermezzo with cello and piano alone to begin with, is conceived almost as a modern pop-ballad; and the Hornpipe is a jolly finale. It is interesting to note that Carlos Miguel Prieto and Willy Mattes choose almost identical tempos throughout, and having learnt this music through the Mattes recording Prieto seems fully idiomatic.

The Hoelscher/Mattes record, mentioned above, has recently been re-released by EMI as a double-CD, including the violin concerto, the Much Ado suite and Theme and Variations, Op. 42, coupled with Welser-Möst’s recording of the Symphony in F sharp minor, the Piano Trio Op 1 and as bonuses Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Hampson singing the two famous arias from Die tote Stadt. I haven’t heard the symphony but that set is definitely a good buy. Admirers of Philippe Quint will no doubt find a lot to enjoy on this latest Naxos disc and the ‘fillers’ are worthy additions to the ever-growing Korngold discography.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Kevin Sutton



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