Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Suite for two violins, cello and piano left hand, Op. 23 (1930) [36:54]
Piano Trio in D major, Op.1 (1909-10) [33:08]
Daniel Rowland, Priya Mitchell (violin); Julian Arp (cello); Luis Magalhćes (piano)
rec. 2013, Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
TWO PIANISTS RECORDS TP1039282 [69:43]
The ‘project’ part of this release we will come to later, but the ‘Part 1’ element implies that the second volume will be of the String Sextet Op. 10 and Piano Quintet Op. 15, also performed as part of this series in May 2013. This project represents a revival of Korngold’s early music, though these are by no means unique recordings as will be looked into further below. Neglected after World War II due to his romantic idiom musicologist Bryan Gilliam’s comment is well taken that Erich Korngold was ‘twice exiled’, so not only forced to flee Nazi persecution but also completely at odds with the anti-Romantic sentiments dominant amongst more vociferous composers after the war. Korngold “left Austria as a ‘degenerate’ and returned an anachronism”.
This pair of Korngold’s pre-war chamber works opens with the Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano (left hand), op. 23 from 1930, and the powerful first bars provide plenty of evidence that this is a creative force with which to be reckoned. This work was commissioned by the famous one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had already favoured Korngold with the task of writing a concerto which became the composer’s Opus 17. The piano part is a central ‘rock’ in the piece, with a cadenza in the strikingly weighty first movement. Viennese character is strong in the waltz of the second movement, with the shadow of Mahler hard to avoid but also with a spectral transparency all of its own. The third movement, Groteske, is a darkly energetic scherzo with plenty of rhythmic drive, while the fourth, Lied, takes a melody from an earlier song collection by Korngold which also appears as variations in the Finale. The quiet nature of this melody, with its soaring violin and atmospherically slow accompaniment is also evocative of Mahler, though you wouldn’t mistake it as something by the great musical ancestor – the harmonic and melodic directions taken are too idiosyncratic for that. The last movement gives the strings some thematic prominence, and while the impressive sonorities return us to the opening the sunny nature of the music delivers an extended sense of arrival.
The precocious Piano Trio in D major, op. 1 is by 20 years the junior of the Suite, but while the score sparkles with influences including that of Korngold’s hero Gustav Mahler, there is also “a great deal of the mature Korngold” to be found here – even though the composer was around 12 when he wrote it. This is more overtly late romantic in terms of sentimentality of expression than the Suite, with the composer striking off in his own harmonic and chromatic excursions. There is a great deal of fin-de-sičcle enjoyment to be had in revelling in this kind of work, as it conjures that world of sophistication and luxurious ennui soon to be wiped away by the suffering and loss incurred by war.
There is some competition for this repertoire. Naxos recorded Op. 1 with the Fidelio Trio not so very long ago (see review), and while this is an excellent performance does sound a little studio-bound by comparison. The Escher Trio’s recording on Challenge Classics has been around for at least a decade (review) but is still a strong contender for its poetic expressiveness. There is also the Pacific Trio on Capriccio, and the classic reference of the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips, whose skill and refined playing is beyond reproach, though perhaps without quite the ardent fire of some performances. CPO has a highly reccomendable recording of the Suite Op. 23 with the Aaron Quartet (review). This is every bit as meaty as the TwoPianists disc at hand and I could happily live with either. This live recording has an edge of excitement which is compelling, but the CPO recording has greater separation and detail, though you will also have to warm to the first violin’s vibrato at close range as well. If you love the work you will probably want both.
The live performances on this recording are all the more remarkable in that the musicians are far from being an established group. From numerous different nationalities, the musicians met and rehearsed in a variety of locations, ending up performing and recording at a chamber music festival in Africa. The unity and synergy apparent from this recording makes it rather special, and with good sound quality and barely any perceptible audience noise this is a release that can be purchased with confidence.