Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony in F sharp (1952) [51:00]
Much Ado About Nothing – Incidental Music (1918) [16:24]
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Marc Albrecht
rec. Salle Erasme, Palais de Congrès, Strasbourg, France. 20 March 2010
PENTATONE PTC 5186 373 [67:41]

It is amazing to think how many recordings of Korngold’s Symphony have appeared over the last two decades; this following so many years of neglect after the composer’s death. A great gap yawned between Rudolf Kempe’s 1972 recording of the work’s world premiere, given in Munich in 1972, fifteen years after Korngold’s death. We now have recordings by: Sir Edward Downes, André Previn, James DePreist, Franz Welser-Möst, Werner Andreas Albert, and now this new PentaTone release which I will say, immediately is outstanding. It is a very intense reading.

The Symphony is scored for a large orchestra including: piano, celesta, marimba, bass tuba and enlarged percussion. It opens in a defiant, explosive, percussive statement. Albrecht’s reading of this haunted, mysterious and sometimes eerie movement has plenty of attack and verve - and lyricism in its contrasting quieter romantic passages. Martial music and hunting-calls sound triumphant proclamations of the main theme but one wonders if this triumph is hollow? Certainly the movement ends in despair. One cannot but conjecture that this music reflected Korngold’s disillusion with life in Hollywood, his return to post-war Vienna just, to see it in ruins, and the general antipathy to his kind of music.

The Scherzo, second movement is very fleet-footed. A theme from his score for the film Juarez is included. The music is racy and comic with occasional sinister inflections. Then, at around six minutes into the movement, utter tiredness seems to set in with the music seemingly a spent force. It spirals downwards to an almost complete stop, becomes sparse and ghostly until fanfares arouse the music and declare a repeat of the opening rushing figures. The movement ends on an odd note of self-pity.

The Adagio quotes from more of Korngold’s film music: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Captain Blood and Anthony Adverse. Albrecht’s measured response speaks eloquently of anguish and disillusion with a lovely fiddle solo, about 12 minutes in, rising above it all. A strong outburst of passion and yearning follows.

The finale is stirring and optimistic. The music, that includes material from another film, Kings Row, tries to strike a devil-may-care pose. Yet there are passages of irony and self-deprecation. Throughout this performance, there is virtuoso playing and in particular, here, by the woodwind players in some quite tricky fleet-footed passages. There is an impression of swashbuckling, sword-on-sword influences before the music winds down, momentarily, into depths of depression.

The whole performance, brilliantly delivered, is served in excellent, sharply defined and focused sound.

Korngold’s suite from his incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a much lighter-hearted work. Written when Korngold was just 21, it uncannily anticipates some of his later Hollywood work. The bustling Overture is merry, comic and burlesque-theatrical with one of Korngold’s attractive broad melodies - one might imagine Errol Flynn courting Olivia de Havilland. Albrecht liberally uses portamenti strings here to add to the romance. The quirky use of the harmonium is another highlight of this tongue-in-cheek overture. The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber has another lovely melody – wistful romance laced with comedy as Hero prepares for her wedding. Its hesitancy suggests that she has decidedly mixed feelings. The Holzapfel and Schiehwein music is a bizarre, comic march that anticipates Korngold’s more risible Sherwood Forest scenes from his film score, The Adventures of Robin Hood. The ‘Intermezzo’ is a dreamy nocturne beginning with a sweetly melancholic passage for piano and cello – this is another lovely Korngold creation. The Hornpipe Prelude to Act II is a high-spirited delight with clever writing for the horn. Albrecht’s reading is fine enough but I prefer the 2002 ASV recording by Caspar Richter. He has a lighter more appealing way with the music. Besides, this recording includes an extra movement from the Much Ado suite - The Garden Music which is omitted from other recordings - why I cannot imagine for it is quite enchanting. This Caspar Richter recording does not include the Symphony but winning performances of Korngold’s Abschiedslieder and Einfache Lieder.

An intense reading of Korngold’s Symphony of disillusion.

Ian Lace

An intense reading of Korngold’s Symphony of disillusion.