Though he was for some years the toast of Vienna, Egon Kornauth was, like many an outstanding citizen of the Dual Monarchy, a Moravian. Born in Olomouc in 1891 he studied in that city before travelling to the Imperial capital to pursue composition first with Robert Fuchs and later with Schreker. He also studied musicology with Guido Adler. But it was only when he studied privately with Franz Schmidt that he seems to have found a teacher whom he felt truly sympathetic. Kornauth gradually rose to a position of some eminence in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1959.
His piano music, of which this is the first volume (and all of which is heard in first recordings) proves highly diverting listening. The Phantasie
of 1915 – the recital runs chronologically - is tightly constructed, indeed almost sonata-like. Opening restlessly it soon relaxes into a ‘second subject’ redolent of Richard Strauss at his most opulently operatic; all this allied to piano writing of post-Lisztian panache and turbulence. The other influence here is surely more Schmidt than Schreker, and though there is intensity, nowhere is Zemlinsky evoked. The Three Piano Pieces, Op.23 followed in 1920. The first is rather funereal, whilst the central piece, an ‘Improvisation’, is flowing and fluid, harmonically piquant without ever being quiet à la mode. The waltz with which this little set ends shifts its moorings from time to time, rhythmically speaking, so one can’t always tell its origin.
A few years later Kornauth wrote his Little Suite, Op.29. The seven movements are very brief but well characterised. Whilst there are Mahlerian suggestions, pianist Jonathan Powell notes in the booklet that Kornauth may have imbibed some of the more Mediterranean spirit of Joseph Marx at this time in his development. Certainly the free-spirited, amply chorded fulsomeness of much of this suite is engaging. There’s light-heartedness too. That quality is necessarily in shorter supply in the Praeludium and Passacaglia
written many years later, in 1939. Here the fascinating feature resides in the commingling of Bachian and Chopinesque elements in the Praeludium
’s ceaseless harmonic quest. The Passacaglia
has its lighter textures but insidious pessimism haunts many of its paragraphs, before the work ends with a declamatory fanfare. Hopeful, ascending lines proclaim a promise for the future.
The following year Kornauth composed his Five Piano Pieces
, Op.44. Brief though they are, they cover some interesting ground, from loquacious polyphony to fulsome diatonic writing in tribute to his native soil - a Moravian ballad, though characteristically he ploughs his own furrow and shows no sign of having heard Novák, who went foraging for folk songs in Kornauth’s neck of the woods, or indeed the Bohemian Suk.
All these pieces are brought thoughtfully and stylishly to life by Powell in performances given in the slightly chilly acoustic of Durham University Music School back in August 2008. They augur well for the next volume.