Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)

Songs - Vol. 1
Track-listing at end of review
Britta Stallmeister (soprano), Uwe Schenker-Primus (baritone)
Klaus Simon (piano)
rec.18-20 November 2007, Theodor-Egel-Saal, Freiburg, Germany; 14-16 March 2008, Schlossbergsaal, Freiburg.
Song texts and translations available here
NAXOS 8.572027 [76:53]

One of the more rewarding musical developments of recent times has been the revival of interest in Korngold’s non-filmic œuvre. Of the operas the classic Leinsdorf recording (review) of Die Tote Stadt stood alone for years until Decca’s Entartete Musik series resurrected Das Wunder der Heliane in 1992 (review). Since then there have been a number of high-profile versions of the Symphony in F and fine discs of the Piano Concerto from Howard Shelley (Chandos CHAN 10433 originally CHAN 9508) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion Hyperion). As for that evergreen, the Violin Concerto, ArkivMusic lists around 28 versions, among them a top-notch one from Philippe Quint on Naxos (review).

This volume of songs – the first in a projected series – may stand out in a deserted field, but it still faces formidable competition from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg. Their DG set Rendezvous with Korngold – inexplicably deleted and now only available as a special order from ArkivMusic or at eye-watering prices on the Internet – was warmly welcomed by IL back in 1999 (review). And rightly so, for it’s an important addition to the EWK discography.

Curiously, Naxos have chosen to start this disc with Korngold’s middle and later songs. Drei Lieder opens with the aching loveliness of ‘Was Du mir bist’, given here in a rather cool, arm’s-length performance by German soprano Britta Stallmeister. She has a habit of floating her high notes in a way that can sound mannered, and as the cycle progressed I did long for more warmth and weight. Also, she has a tendency to swoop and scoop – in ‘Welt ist stille eingeschlafen’, for instance – which is rather distracting. As for the five songs of Unvergänglichkeit, there’s a bitter-sweet quality to the piano writing that surely recalls the strange, half-lit milieu of Die tote Stadt, written thirteen years earlier.

Klaus Simon is a discreet accompanist, the piano well recorded and balanced. Indeed, perspectives are generally fine throughout. And while I enjoyed Unvergänglichkeit I just could not warm to Stallmeister’s glacial tones or rid myself of the sense that, despite her soaring lines, she just doesn’t have a great deal in reserve. That said, she thaws a little in the songs from Twelfth Night and the Bardic settings of Vier Lieder, all sung in English. Diction isn’t terribly clear, but there are welcome flashes of wit in both the vocal and piano parts.

Halfway through and I found myself wool-gathering. True, the song isn’t central to Korngold’s output and I really can’t agree with Cornelius Bauer in his liner-notes, when he asserts that had Korngold been born thirty years earlier his vocal settings would have rivalled those of Mahler and Strauss. No, there’s a strangely dated feel to some of Korngold’s later songs – akin to Thomas Hardy’s later fiction, perhaps – that one just doesn’t feel with the lieder of Mahler or Strauss. And while there are some nuggets to be found in these works, there simply aren’t enough for me; moreover, Stallmeister doesn’t have the vocal or dramatic resources to make them shine.

That said, there’s no denying the talents of the young Korngold, whose early output of 1911-1913 is remarkably assured for one so young. Who else but a prodigy would dare to set poems by the great Eichendorff, these Op. 5 songs bound and presented to the composer’s unyielding father? There’s a vigour and clarity to the piano writing that’s most appealing – just sample ‘Das Ständchen’ – while ‘Winternacht’ is darkly Schubertian. The baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus has a pleasing range and smoothness of line; he’s nimble in ‘Das Mädchen’ and wonderfully inward in ‘Abendlandschaft’.

These early songs are altogether more engaging and, to my ears at least, they seem less brittle than the later ones. Much of the credit for that goes to Schenker-Primus; even under pressure, as in ‘Die Sperlinge’, his voice has a youthful ring and reach that suits these songs very well. And in ‘Vom Berge’ there’s another of those goose-bump moments, the equivocal harmonies recalling Die tote Stadt once more. The piano is bit too prominent, perhaps, but really there’s little to criticise here. As always, Klaus Simon is a characterful accompanist; indeed, his and Schenker-Primus’s partnership is an altogether more engaging – and insightful – one than that between Simon and Stallmeister.

The recital ends with three ‘simple songs’ from Korngold’s Op. 9 and four stand-alone, posthumous ones, all feelingly sung by this most resourceful of baritones. And ‘simple’ they aren’t, the young composer sounding surprisingly adventurous at times; just listen to how the piano catches the genial warmth of ‘Sommer’, or how both artists respond to the gentle radiance of ‘Vesper’.

Despite my reservations about Stallmeister’s somewhat detached vocal style – and the uneven quality of Korngold’s later settings – this is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue. Sung texts aren’t provided, but they’re easily downloaded from the Naxos website.

Dan Morgan

A very worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

Drei Lieder, Op. 22 (1928-1929)
No. 1 Was Du mir bist (What Are You To Me) [3:16]
No. 2 Mit Dir zu schweigen (To be Silent When I'm With You) [2:10]
No. 3 Welt ist stille eingeschlafen (The World Has Gone To Sleep) [2:27]
Unvergänglichkeit (Immortality), Op. 27 (1933)
No. 1 Unvergänglichkeit I (Immortality I) [2:15]
No. 2 Das eilende Bachlein (The Rushing Little Stream) [1:35]
No. 3 Das schlafende Kind (The Sleeping Child) [1:53]
No. 4 Starker als der Tod (Stronger than Death) [1:59]
No. 5 Unvergänglichkeit II (Immortality II) [2:37]
Narrenlieder (Songs of the Clown), Op. 29 (1937)
No. 1 Come away, Death [2:16]
No. 2 O mistress mine [2:04]
No. 3 Adieu, good man Devil [00:44]
No. 4 Hey Robin [00:49]
No. 5 For the rain, it raineth every day [3:14]
Vier Shakespeare-Lieder, Op. 31 (1937-1941)
No. 1 Desdemona's song [2:59]
No. 2 Under the greenwood tree [1:54]
No. 3 Blow, Blow, thou winter wind [2:17]
No. 4 When birds do sing [2:57]
Zwölf Lieder, Op. 5 ‘So Gott und Papa will’ [1911]
No. 1 Das Ständchen (Serenade) [2:15]
No. 2 Winternacht (Winter Night) [2:30]
No. 3 Das Mädchen (The Girl) [1:30]
No. 4 Abendlandschaft (Evening Landscape) [1:31]
No. 5 Schneeglockchen (Snowdrops) [3:01]
No. 6 Aussicht (Outlook) [1:20]
No. 7 Die Sperlinge (The Sparrows) [1:10]
No. 8 Nachtwanderer (Night Wanderer) [2:52]
No. 9 Der Friedensbote (The Messenger of Peace) [1:13]
No. 10 Vom Berge (From The Mountain) [1:43]
No. 11 Waldeinsamkeit (Woodland Solitude) [2:05]
No. 12 Sangesmut (The Spirit of Singing) [1:13]
Sechs Einfache Lieder, Op. 9: Nos. 4-6 (1911-1913)
No. 4 Liebesbriefchen (A Little Love Letter) [1:55]
No. 5 Das Heldengrab am Pruth (The Hero's Grave at Pruth) [2:54]
No. 6 Sommer (Summer) [2:54]
Angedenken (Remembrance) (Op. posth.) [1:56]
Vesper (Op. posth.) [3:08]
Reiselied (Travelling Song) (Op. posth.) [1:22]
Der Geniale (The Genius) (Op. posth.) [00:56]