Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
String Quartet No.1 in A, op.16 (1920-1923) [32:30]
String Quartet No.2 in E?, op.26 (1933) [21:59]
String Quartet No.3 in D, op.34 (1944-1945) [25:24]
Doric Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone (violins), Simon Tandree (viola), John Myerscough (cello))
rec. 5-7 April 2010, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10611 [79:57]

I was lucky, during the early 1970s, to study with Harold Truscott, who was a friend of Korngold. Slightly ahead of RCA releasing the excellent film music LPs, and subsequently the Symphony, he played me recordings from his collection of the composer’s major works. For whatever reason, he never played me the String Quartets – but he did talk about them. When RCA issued an LP of the Chilingirian Quartet playing the 1st and 3rd Quartets they came as a revelation to me. Indeed, the 1st Quartet still bowls me over whenever I hear it for it has an elemental quality which I find in few chamber works – the late Quartets of Haydn, not to mention Holmboe’s and Rubbra’s Quartets; all have that special, but different, “something” which is to be found in Korngold’s work.

The 1st Quartet was written in the wake of the delightful Much Ado About Nothing music, and the opera Die Tote Stadt. It immediately precedes the astonishing Concerto for Left Hand and the Piano Quintet. This was a fertile period for Korngold and, in some respects, he wrote his best music at this time, for these are the works of a young man – although, to be honest, by 23 he had reached his fullest musical maturity. They display a young man’s enthusiasms and are full of that joy of living which we all experience at that time of life. So here he is, flexing his compositional muscles in a work of great warmth and humour, full of great tunes, glorious harmonies and with a smiling countenance. There is the most sublime slow movement and a hilarious finale. What more could one want from a work? This performance is excellent, and if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of nirvana which I experience when listening to the Chilingirians play the work, it gets very, very close. This is superb.

Although I have just written that in some respects Korngold wrote his best music before he moved to America, I must point out that he simply got better the more he wrote, and his language changed through experience. It’s just that those earlier works have a thrust and excitement which is tempered later on. That’s what experience and personal growth does for you! The 2nd Quartet was written just before Korngold’s first visit to Hollywood, to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for Max Reinhardt’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This work is much more gemütlich than the 1st Quartet; it possesses an easy going charm and there’s no intensity or problems here. The finale is a marvellously conceived waltz, wild and extravagant. The 3rd Quartet follows the majority of his film work, and pre–dates the Violin Concerto. Here we find Korngold in a more classical, less romantic, frame of mind, but it’s still recognisably Korngold. That said, the themes are terse, much less expansive than before, the working out elusive. The whole looks forward to a new musical world, which finally arrived, for him, twenty years after his death.

These three Quartets are fine works, which deserve to be heard, and they are turning up more often in recital programmes. With performances as fine as these they will continue their journey into the regular repertoire. The booklet, in English, German and French, contains an excellent essay by Brendan G Carroll, president of the International Korngold Society, and two photographs of the composer I had never seen before. The recording perfectly captures every nuance of the performance making this a disk to be relished.

Bob Briggs

see also review by Rob Barnett

A disk to be relished.