Here is a big Late Romantic indulgence - some
five hours of piano music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, aptly described
by his biographer, Brendan G. Carroll, as the ‘Last Prodigy.’
Much of this music was composed when Korngold was still in his
teens and many years before he reached Hollywood and those Warner
Bros. Scores. Many of the works show their Viennese origins, firmly
rooted in 19th century romantic traditions, waltzes
In five hours’ music, covering Korngold’s output
in this form, inspiration quite clearly is bound to be uneven
but the standard is extraordinarily high especially considering
the age of the composer when the music was set down. As Carroll
says, "His keyboard style was highly personal and fully formed
from the start, yet he seems to have had hardly any instruction
on the instrument. Apart from a few lessons when he was five years
old (not from an eminent teacher, but a needy relative) he seems
to have been entirely self taught."
CD1 begins with the Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor
composed in 1908/09 when Erich was only eleven years old. It is
an extraordinarily mature work for one so young. The opening movement
marked …con passione, is masterful and heroic in the grand Late
Romantic tradition. It has a big open sound and the grandeur of
its opening pages suggests piano concerto writing. Dramatic dissonance
contrasts with lyrical piquancy. Korngold has fun with his frivolous
wayward scherzo with a central dreamy waltz that is constantly
interrupted by quirky figures. The finale of this three-movement
work is a remarkably assured passacaglia on a theme by his composition
teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky. It impressed Mahler.
Don Quixote - Six Character Pieces after Cervantes
was also composed in 1909 and it gave Korngold the opportunity
of showing off his precocity in character painting. ‘Don Quixote’s
Dreams of heroic deeds’ are heroically ambitious but hollow; Korngold
brings out all Cervantes’ misguided knight’s melancholic irony.
The braying of the animal and the ponderous posture of the squire
are vividly caught in ‘Sancho Panza on his grey donkey’ and Quixote’s
dream of romance in the tender ‘Dulcinea of Toboso.’
A forty-three minute suite of music from Korngold’s
ballet-pantomime Der Schneeman (The Snowman) completes
the first CD. Der Schneemann was Korngold’s first work
for the stage and it was produced at the Vienna Opera on October
4th 1910 by ‘Imperial Command of Emperor Franz Josef’
and was an immediate hit. This piano reduction from the orchestral
score begins with an ‘Introduction’ which sets the icy wintry
scene (with brief impressionistic touches) and introduces a captivating
melody. The music has an enchantment that is immediately appealing
and is full of childhood enthusiasm and innocence. There follows
a seventeen-minute reduction of the music for ‘First scene’. Much
of it enchants. It has a warm glow. It is frolicsome and sentimentally
nostalgic yet it tends to become rather tediously repetitive;
inspiration, and therefore attention, flags. The brief ‘Entr’acte’
reprises material from ‘First Scene’ but states it more emphatically
with some passion; and acts as a bridge to ‘Scene Two’ that is
eighteen minutes of charming, often gentle dreamy music again
showing some influence of Debussy.
CD2 opens with Korngold’s Sonata No. 2, composed
in 1910 beginning heroically (stated rather sternly by Jones)
before a lyrical subject is introduced. The first movement develops
through moods of quiet rippling introspection, of regret, and
defiance. In the scherzo, a wild unruly waltz contrasts with another
waltz, this time dreamy. The slow movement marked Largo, con
dolore is mysterious and seemingly unfocused. The finale in
contrast is all smiles; an amiable rondo that passes through a
number of interesting modulations and harmonic devices but the
general mood is sunny with occasional nostalgic autumnal tints.
Of the Seven fairy tale pictures , from
1910, ‘The enchanted princess’ has material that anticipates Korngold’s
Robin Hood film score, ‘The Goblins’ is a witty quicksilver evocation
with a lovely central melody, and both ‘The brave little tailor’
and ‘The fairy tale’s epilogue’ have material that haunts.
Korngold’s father Julius was a feared Viennese
music critic. As a parent he was very autocratic and sought to
suppress some of Erich’s early works. Amongst these was the Four
little happy waltzes (1911) named after four of the composer’s
little girl friends (Julius thought them too much of an unwelcome
distraction!). Consequently they lay forgotten for eighty years.
The opening number, ‘Gretl’, is a rather conventional Viennese
waltz but with a thoughtful middle section, but ‘Gisi’ is a little
gem, subdued at first but rippling out to haunting beauty. ‘Margit’
is dreamy and a little skittish; while pretty ‘Mitzi’ tends to
be a rather proud and haughty.
CD2 ends with Four Little caricatures for
children that are very brief (a minute or less). They are
witty take-offs of the styles of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartók
and Hindemith; and What the woods told me, three little
evocative pieces entitled ‘The awakening of the birds in the morning’,
‘The love-sick hunting boy’ and ‘The Imps’ that amusingly lampoons
‘Tales of the Vienna Woods’.
CD3 opens with a piano reduction of the Act III
Intermezzo from Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane an opera
about a dictatorship from which all love has been banished. A
handsome young stranger appears who is condemned to death for
preaching joy and love to the people. The dictator’s wife falls
for him and is likewise condemned. The music suggests the crushing
regime and a passionate pleading for love and sympathy.
Korngold composed his Piano Trio in D major in
1910. Again, it is an amazingly assured work for one so young.
In this version for piano four hands, Martin Jones is joined by
Richard McMahon. They rejoice in the opening movement’s flowing
romantic lyricism that points towards the operas (in fact the
puckish, mischievous Scherzo anticipates, in its beguiling Trio
section, a lovely phrase that Korngold would use in Der Ring
des Polykrates) and to the film music. The Larghetto meditates
yearningly while the Finale is playful again with familiar Viennese
A Potpourri from the opera Der Ring des Polykrates
(1913) is light confection in keeping with comic romantic complications
of two couples and a desire to test the steadfastness and the
inevitability of true love. This is a transcription by an L. Ruffin
and as Brendan Carroll says it is rather thin, but I think it
communicates the lovely melodies cleanly and directly. Martin
Jones revels in the numbers from As You Like It.
The ‘Girl in the Bridal Chamber’ is surely one of Korngold’s loveliest
creations and the grotesque march for the drunken night watchmen
is great fun while the concluding Hornpipe is very merry and a
rattling good tune.
The ‘Schach Brugge!’ is the Act II harlequinade
in Die Tote Stadt that culminates in the haunting
‘Pierrot Lied’. CD3 is rounded off by Geschichten von Strauss
- an affectionate and clever fantasy/pastiche of the Strauss family’s
The more mature Sonata No. 3 composed in 1931
at the beginning of the first of Korngold’s ‘Hollywood’ decades,
opens CD4. Starting with an imperious, muscular Allegro, its second
movement is a somewhat mysterious Andante religioso that suddenly
has a repeated phrase, counterpointing a solemn tread, that at
first resembles the cry of a cuckoo (was Korngold the joker’s
voice in evidence here?) before the material develops a bell-like
evocation. The delightful third movement has a memorable tune
originally composed for the first birthday of his son George (who
was to become a recording producer and an ardent champion of his
father’s music). The final Rondo is full of good humour.
From Der Schneemann come ‘Four Easy Pieces’,
making up a candy box of very feminine, prettily decorated: ‘Waltzer’,
‘Entr’acte’, ‘Serenade’ and ‘Pierrot and Colombine: Valse lente’.
Rebay’s arrangement of Korngold’s Schauspiel
Overture captures all the bravado of the orchestral original while
his arrangement for piano four hands (again with Richard McMahon
joining Martin Jones) of Die tote Stadt has pellucidly
romantic renditions of ‘Mariettaslied’ and ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied’.
Martin Jones performs these perfumed works most
sympathetically. He seems to steer a middle course between the
slow tempi of Alexander Frey (Koch 3-7427-2 HI) and the fast of
Schafer (Calig CAL 50995) and Prunyi (Marco Polo 8.223384).
Clearly the most successful works are those written
specifically for the piano, the transcriptions obviously lose
much when reduced from their rich orchestral dress. But for Korngold
completists, this is an essential survey and I feel sure that
they will derive much pleasure dipping into these four CDs.