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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Much Ado About Nothing - complete incidental music Op.11 (1918) [43:38]
Sinfonietta Op.5 (1912) [43:33]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. Helsinki Music Centre Finland; 9-10 August 2011 (Sinfonietta Movs. 2-4); 26-28 January 2012 (Much Ado); 28 January 2012 (Sinfonietta Mov. 1)
ONDINE ODE 1191-2D [43:38 + 43:33]

Experience Classicsonline

Korngold completists such as myself will not need a second prompting to snap up this set as it promises the first complete recording of the incidental music to Much Ado about Nothing. When Korngold’s fortunes were at their most doldrum-bound just about the only orchestral work you might pick up was either the five movement orchestral suite drawn from the incidental music on Vox (ACD8191) and another on EMI (review) - or the four movement transcription for violin and piano parts of which were championed by Heifetz amongst others. An autograph manuscript - previously unknown - of a string quartet version of the suite was recently sold and one imagines that will be making its way to the recording studio before too long.
The orchestral suite runs to about seventeen minutes so the forty three offered here would seem to promise a lot of ‘unknown’ Korngold. It’s not quite that straightforward. The ASV series of Korngold’s music under Caspar Richter offered a six movement suite by adding the Prelude to Act 3 Garden Music (review). A subsequent Richter disc (review) added a further three movements; No.4 Festmusik - Act 2 Scene 1; No.12 Trauermusik - Prelude to Act 5; and No.14 Schlusstanz - Finale Act 5. Later still, Regis (RRC1290) combined these two different ASV releases into a single extended suite which plays for just shy of thirty-two minutes. So we are down to around ten minutes of the unknown. Even then it’s not quite that straightforward: No.7 Intermezzo is in fact identical to No.13 Intermezzo. No.11 Dogberry and Verges is a condensed but much the same No.8 Dogberry and Verges. Finally strip out the two truly incidental movements; Nos. 2 and 8a (a direct reprise of the end of No.8) neither of which last half a minute and you are left with a one minute No.10 Church Scene and No.5 Balthasar’s song (Sigh no more Ladies) as your unknown unknowns. It should be mentioned that apparently Korngold wrote Balthasar’s (the page-boy) song for his then fiancé Luzi - here it is sung, not very appealingly by a rather wobbly and squeezed tenor. It might be unknown but perhaps it’s not wholly ‘authentic’?
The music, in whatever form, is important in Korngold’s output. Its Op. 11 places it immediately before Die Tote Stadt - his first great and enduring success and fully mature work. Additionally, in its function as incidental music it is very easy to hear all the skills at work that Korngold would use in his career as a film music composer. The music is apposite, brilliantly scored and memorable. It is worth noting that Korngold’s score was written for just nineteen players: single wind, two horns, one each of trumpet and trombone, a small string section, percussion and his signature harp, piano and a harmonium. Don’t be surprised by the harmonium’s presence. Many scores of light and incidental music of this time were provided with an ‘alternative’ harmonium part if the full wind complement was missing. Korngold has simply short-circuited this option by using it as a front-line instrument. Without a doubt it adds an unusual and charming sound to the texture and any recording worth its salt must accommodate its unique wheezy sound. No comment is made in the liner regarding the scale of the scoring. I was left wondering whether or not an expanded string section was used here. The nineteen mentioned above would allow for just 7 strings which I guess would work out as 2:2:1:1:1 but there are more than that playing here. If “original” and “complete” are such key concepts to this release why not stick to the original scale too?
This brings me quite neatly onto the new performance under review. The same forces on the same label produced a perfectly adequate but not exactly heaven-storming account of the late F sharp Symphony (review). Much the same can be said of this recording. Listened to in isolation one revels in the subtle wit and romantic beauty of Korngold’s writing. The bluff horns in the hornpipe have a ball, a lovely cello solo in the Intermezzo aches with regret for an earlier age, the closing waltz gleefully looks period appropriateness in the eye and swirls its giddy way without a care or concern. Yet, in direct comparison to Caspar Richter on ASV/Regis Storgårds is a shade literal. The key to Korngold is to embrace the anachronistic Romanticism of the music and play it for all it is worth. The rich and full Ondine recording does not help a great deal here either - the small(ish) ensemble sounds inflated. The excellent horns in the hornpipe sound rather too big for the light-hearted music they play. Richter’s horns are altogether more slim-line but it allows the music here and elsewhere to twinkle. The engineering for Richter is altogether more subtle with the signature instrumentation of harp and piano (in tandem with glockenspiel) registering to perfection; what a subtly brilliant score this is! As I mentioned at the outset fellow completists will have this disc purchased already and I would miss the brief No.10 Church Scene which is not available elsewhere although I would hope another singer will record Balthasar’s Song.
If there is one work that confirms Korngold’s status as a true prodigy it must surely be the Op.5 Sinfonietta which here accompanies “Much Ado”. Not that it is a perfect work by any means but the remarkable fact remains that the composer was fifteen when he wrote it. Most ‘ordinary’ composers go to their graves not having written a work of such virtuosic orchestration, formal control and sheer bravura. The diminutive term ‘Sinfonietta’ was used - I am sure - simply to deflect any potential criticism of a boy writing a full-scale symphony. Yet that is what this is - nearly three quarters of an hour of foot-to-the-floor late-Romantic ardour. Many admirers will have come to know this work via the trail-blazing version on Varese (VSD 5311) from Gerd Albrecht and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. This still measures up very well and has been joined by other fine versions from Matthias Bamert with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos (CHAN9317) and Andrew Litton in Dallas (coupled with an excellent version of the Violin Concerto) on Dorian. In such company Werner Andreas Albert’s version with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie on CPO as part of his complete orchestral works survey (999 150-2) limps some way behind. Storgårds provides a very accurate, rather too dry-eyed account. The acoustic which rather over-inflated the suite is much better suited to the Sinfonietta but again Storgårds seems unwilling to urge his players to much more than a finely objective reading. He is much more controlled than say Albrecht but listen to the closing paragraphs of the work where the Berlin players leap - Korngold makes extensive use of his favourite ‘motif of the cheerful heart’ throughout - joyfully for the end with the barely digested Rosenkavalier whoops on the horns simply ecstatic. With an orchestra of Helsinki’s calibre in a score that delights - might one say wallows! - in the glories of a modern orchestra there are many passages that will bring great pleasure; the brass led chorale around 9:30 always brings a smile to my face. Some of the engineering I find too spot-lit. The producers could have allowed Korngold’s harps to act more a shimmering harmonic halo around primary melodic material. What this kind of forensic attention does reveal is both the extraordinary detail/quality of the scoring and how fully formed Korngold’s fluid handling of harmony was by this ridiculously young age. Therein lies this composer’s great strength and greatest weakness. For sure later works might tighten up on structure and not be quite so deliciously profligate but in essence the fifteen year old Korngold did little that the fifty year old did not; his style barely evolved and for that you either admire or dismiss him.
Something of a mixed bag for prospective buyers. I assume the sessions were planned for a single CD but by including the complete incidental music, reprises and all in the interest one suspects of a dreaded USP, the timing runs just over the CD maximum 80 minute mark. Ondine, wisely therefore, have released this as a twofer set with each work complete on a 40+ minute disc. The liner by Richard Whitehouse is little more than functional and a text in German and English is included for the song. The unique elements of this set do not, in my mind, supplant the preference for superior versions elsewhere namely from Richter on Regis for the Incidental music and Litton on Dorian for the Sinfonietta - both discs come with fillers of considerable musical interest and quality in performance. Given the competition this disc demands the attention of completists only.
Nick Barnard  

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