Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
The String Quartets: No. 1 in A major, Op. 16 (1920-23) [32:20]; No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 26 (1933) [21:59]; No. 3 in D major, Op. 34 (1944-45) [25:24]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Simon Tandree (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 5-7 April 2010. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10611 [79:57]
Korngold and the string quartet. It’s not a medium you might link with him; at least not if you associate Korngold with Hollywood film music. Korngold and the grand opera - well, yes. Korngold and the symphony - certainly - although there is only one. Korngold’s fame for music of voluptuous, Straussian excess and glorious saturated lyricism hardly prepares you for a composer who wrote three such four-movement works from his twenties to his mid-forties. Short of the string trio the quartet is among the most ascetic and demanding of formats. Korngold was equal to the challenge and wove and shaped the medium to his style.
From the composer’s perspective of 1920-23 he already had behind him operas, ambitious orchestral music and chamber music. To write a string quartet was one of the most natural things for a young master-composer living in Vienna. He had just finished the opera Die Tote Stadt and within the last decade as a teenager he had written the grand Sinfonietta. The First Quartet was premiered by the famed Rosé Quartet in 1924 in Vienna; in London in 1925. It is a loftily skilled work of warm and singing release. It uses themes of a caste that will be familiar from the film scores and opera; indeed a melody in the finale was later used in his opera Die Kathrin (1932-37). We hear a lavish mix which should appeal if you already like the quartets by Smetana, Marx, Schoeck, Bowen or Howells.

The Second Quartet also radiates romantic warmth from its four movements including the affectionate first with its stabbing Beethovenian fate motif. The irresistibly smiling Intermezzo takes us back to the café culture delight’s of Smetana 1 while there is haunting strength and vulnerable delicacy in the affecting Larghetto. The finale again hymns the delights of Vienna and its all-pervasive waltz. It was also premiered by the Rosé.

The Third Quartet is dedicated to Bruno Walter “in admiration and friendship”. It was premiered by the Roth Quartet in LA in 1946. More spare in its textures, the warmth has been tempered by his forced exile to Hollywood as a consequence of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. The spiky Scherzo can stand representative of the whole work. The innocent smile of the earlier two works will never quite return. Film score themes from Devotion and Between Two Worlds are used. There’s still warmth - how could it not be there - but experience of world events was bound to change the accent. The deeply moving Sostenuto is wistful - even melancholic. He summons up the world of the earlier quartets with music of Beethovenian fate-bound declamatory grit and rousing amiability. The Doric project virile vigour and their sound is most powerfully and engagingly captured. The ASV recordings by the Flesch Quartet (review; review) are a shade warmer and the listener is two or three steps back from the music-making. The ASV version uses two discs and adds the Sextet. The logic of having all three quartets on one disc is unanswerable. Korngold biographer Brendan G Carroll wrote the detailed notes for both the Chandos and the ASV. If you are reading up on Korngold let me put in a word also for Jessica Duchen’s more compact and amazingly fluent Phaidon biography of the composer. Carroll’s is, on the other hand, skilled, informed by years of research, authoritative and exhaustive. In Sibelian terms Carroll is Tawastjerna or Barnett (Andrew) to Duchen’s Guy Rickards. Such a pity that neither of these Korngold biographies are in print.
Stylish and emotionally adroit recordings of Korngold’s three quartets. Go for it!
Rob Barnett