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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Das Wunder der Heliane (1927) [167:48]
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano) – Heliane; Hartmut Welker (baritone) – Der Herrscher; John David de Haan (tenor) – Der Fremde; Reinhild Runkel (mezzo) – Die Botin; René Pape (bass) – Der Pförtner; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Det Schwertrichter; Martin Petzold (tenor) – Der junge Mensch
Rundfunk Chor Berlin
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Mauceri
rec. 20-29 February 1992, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin. DDD
originally released, 1993, Decca’s Entartete Musik series 436 636-2
DECCA 475 8271 [3 CDs: 56:04 + 61:25 + 50:19]


When I was young Erich Wolfgang Korngold was not held in very high esteem by the musical establishment. True, he had written a violin concerto that was played by great violinists like Heifetz and Perlman, but in the main he was written off as a composer of kitschy film music for Hollywood. The standing and now desperately stale joke was that his music was more corn than gold. I still came across some of his music. On a German opera recital by the young Herrmann Prey there was Pierrot’s song from Die tote Stadt, which I fell in love with and an LP album with historical recordings by Lotte Lehmann included both Glück, das mir verlieb (with Richard Tauber) from the same opera, and Ich ging zu ihm from Das Wunder der Heliane – eternal favourites both. Then in the mid-1970s came a renewed interest in Korngold: the violin concerto appeared in a new recording from Ulf Hoelscher (EMI), the symphony with Rudolf Kempe (Varese-Sarabande), two volumes in RCA’s Classic Film Music series and, on the same label, Die tote Stadt under Leinsdorf with Neblett, Kollo, Luxon and Prey. The wagon continued to roll: piano music, chamber music, more orchestral music and the operas Violanta, Das Wunder der Heliane and Die Kathrin, his last stage work, which is a mix between opera and operetta. By the time Hitler had come to power, Korngold, who was a Jew, had emigrated to the USA and was in the midst of his Hollywood career. Die Kathrin was premiered in Stockholm in 1939. In spite of some well-crafted and inspired music it is possibly his weakest stage work; he regarded Das Wunder as his masterpiece, though it never achieved much of a success. Brendan Carroll, vice-president of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Society, writes in the accompanying booklet to this issue that there were two reasons for this: firstly a kind of anti-Korngold atmosphere, caused by his father Julius Korngold’s activities as a critic, where he often condemned ‘modernistic’ music; secondly the tremendous success of Krenek’s ‘jazz opera’ Jonny spielt auf, which eclipsed Das Wunder der Heliane, with its religious-mystic concept. I need not go into a detailed analysis, since Brendan Carroll has already done the job; suffice to say that the plot is elusive, that parts of the opera are dramatically long-winded and that some of Korngold’s most advanced harmonic writing may be off-putting to some. That said, weighing pros and cons I have to agree with the composer that by and large this is among his most absorbing writing.

It is a lavish score, rich and colourful in the vein of Richard Strauss with some dashes of Mahler and more than a few drops of Puccinian sweetness. One can even trace some sentimentality à la Franz Lehár, but this is compensated by bold, even harsh harmonies that remind us that another key figure in Vienna at the time was Arnold Schönberg. The young Korngold sponged up influences from everywhere but managed to create a tonal language all his own. Anyone familiar with Die tote Stadt will know what the music sounds like, only a bit more daring, a bit more colourful and – yes – even more powerful. Sometimes one feels, also in his other operas, that the orchestration is too rich, that there are passages where a little more restraint, a sparser orchestral texture wouldn’t come amiss. But it happens, as in Die tote Stadt, where the famous Glück, das mir verlieb is so much simpler than the surrounding music and then it becomes the more telling. This also happens in this opera: in the first act, when Heliane sings O wüsstet Ihr, wie weh mir ist um Euch (CD1 tr. 8), which is a lyrical outpouring, accompanied by harp, woodwind and high strings. The second act ‘aria’ Ich ging zu ihm (CD2 tr. 6) is another resting point of great beauty, but it grows gradually to the grandiose and ends in full ecstasy. The prelude to the same act is Korngold at his most magnificent, out-Straussing Strauss, while the interlude before act 3, with long, string-dominated, sweeping melodies, points forward to his Hollywood career which was to blossom within a decade. It is followed by a grand chorus of the people which has tremendous power, jagged, aggressive with echoes of Turandot, which was premiered just a year earlier and which Korngold probably saw. Decca’s state-of-the-art recording in the grateful acoustics of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Dahlem catches all this to perfection and with a good amplifier and a set of first class speakers one can wallow in the rich sonorities of the orchestra, held on a tight rein by John Mauceri, who up to that time had exclusively been known for his recordings of Broadway musicals. The Berlin Radio Choir also impresses greatly. The leading soloists have been picked more for their suitability to their respective roles than star quality.

The world premiere was in Hamburg on 7 October 1927 with Maria Hussa in the title role and three weeks later it was played in Vienna, not as intended with Maria Jeritza but with Lotte Lehmann as Heliane. Lehmann made that famous recording of Ich ging zu ihm, a yardstick recording if ever there was one, the following year and so has always been associated with the role. The choice of Anna Tomowa-Sintow for the role on this recording was an inspired one, since she has all the stamina needed for the part, the dramatic conviction and also the ability to float those heavenly high pianissimos so characteristic of Korngold’s soprano heroines. As her husband, the Ruler, Hartmut Welker has a suitably nasty voice, on the dry side and hurling his venomous phrases in the face of his opponents. The third main character, the Stranger, should be a lyrical heldentenor - a Lohengrin - and the first one hears of John David de Haan, who later dropped David – I reviewed a fascinating disc with him singing Dave Brubeck’s songs a couple of years ago – is certainly lyrical, almost weak, but very expressive. Later on it turns out that he has a lot of power in reserve and, though occasionally strained, he delivers first-rate heroic singing. This Messiah-like character needs nobility and warmth and that is exactly what de Haan provides. Among the lesser, but still important, characters we note the young René Pape as a steady and humane Porter, Reinhild Runkel as a viciously dramatic Messenger and Nicolai Gedda, forty years after his debut, in admirable fresh voice and with his usual care over words and nuances as The Blind Judge, a kind of equivalent to the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo.

It was a great pity that the critical failure of Das Wunder der Heliane discouraged Korngold from further opera composing. He was only thirty at the time and even Mozart had to reach that age before he wrote his real operatic masterpieces. But instead of mourning the loss of Korngold’s unwritten operas we have to be grateful for what we have and Das Wunder der Heliane is certainly worth any opera-lover’s attention. Since there will probably never be a new version, it should be snapped up before it vanishes from the catalogue again.

The mystery play may be a bit hard to penetrate but it has a humane message we sorely need in this cruel world and it abounds with gorgeous music, gorgeously played and sung in a gorgeous recording. The booklet is a model of its kind.

Göran Forsling 


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