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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 40 [53:08]
Violin Concerto in D, op. 35 [25:12]
The Sea Hawk [17:19]
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex [13:48]
Captain Blood [13:59]
The Prince and the Pauper [22:04]
Much Ado about Nothing [10:12]
Gil Shaham (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. All Hallows Gospel Oak, London, June 1996 (Symphony, Much Ado about Nothing); Henry Wood Hall, London, June 1993 (Violin Concerto); Abbey Road Studio, London, July 2001 (remainder of programme)
ELOQUENCE 482 3438 [78:30 + 78:18]

Let me put my cards on the table straightaway: this is both an ideal Korngold primer and a remarkable bargain. The performances are thoroughly idiomatic and very well played, the recordings, originally on Deutsche Grammophon, are all first-rate, and the two discs could hardly be more generously filled.

Probably the best known piece – though it is nowhere near as frequently played as it arguably merits – is Korngold’s Violin Concerto of 1947. By then, of course, his post-romantic idiom was in many ways hopelessly passé: at roughly the same time that Heifetz first played the concerto in New York, premieres were already taking place of works by the likes of Boulez, Henze, or Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Yet this must surely be one of the most gorgeously beautiful concertos ever written. It is not easy to get right in performance: the soloist in particular needs to convey warmth, generosity of spirit and a thoroughgoing romantic impulse, but must never let the music overheat or cloy, as it certainly can. It is his ability to get this delicate balance just right that seems to me to set Gil Shaham apart from most interpreters of the concerto. I remember thinking this after a memorable concert performance he gave with Lawrence Foster back in 1993 (the year of this recording). This recording with Previn very much reinforces that view. Shaham gets the ethereally beautiful opening just right, and from then on never looks back: his heart is on his sleeve, as it has to be, but never too much so. He avoids sentimentality, he keeps the music moving and, of course, he has virtuosity to burn. Moreover, Previn gives the impression that he understands every jot and tittle of the score and that his interpretation is at one with his soloist’s. In short, this is a wholly outstanding performance.

As, to my mind, is Previn’s account of Korngold’s 1954 Symphony. This is a massive work, which requires a massive orchestra – one of the reasons, no doubt, why it is so seldom given live. Certainly, in nearly 40 years of regular concert-going, I have managed to catch only one live performance – a very good one, by Michael Seal and the CBSO, early in 2015. It is a problematic piece, insofar as features few if any of the composer’s trademark ‘big tunes’. Rather, it is a remarkably tightly structured, genuinely symphonic work, based to a considerable degree on a single tritone heard right at the outset. It is not difficult at times to hear echoes of Mahler, Strauss, perhaps Shostakovich (whose Tenth Symphony had been premiered in 1953), or even Walton, at least in the demonic tarantella scherzo, which in Previn’s hands occasionally seems uncannily reminiscent of the presto con malizia of Walton’s First Symphony. It is in no sense a derivative work, however, with many typically Korngoldian motifs, harmonies and flashes of inspired orchestration.

Particularly in Previn’s dark-hued performance, it also emerges as a work replete with dramatic tension and with sadness. Whether this sadness derives, as has sometimes been averred, from Korngold’s own sense of frustration and disappointment at the negative reception he encountered when re-visiting Europe in 1949, or from broader concerns (the work is, after all, dedicated to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt), is a matter for debate. It is palpably present, however, and is brought out by Previn more eloquently and movingly than in other – basically excellent – recordings I have heard by conductors such as Sir Edward Downes or Franz Welser-Möst. This is the case even in ‘consoling’ passages, such as the prominent flute solo in the first movement, which here sounds deeply ambiguous, provisional, even troubled. I regret that I have not encountered the premiere recording of the Korngold Symphony by Rudolf Kempe, which Ian Lace praised so enthusiastically (see review). Of the performances I have heard however, Previn’s stands out, because of this extra dimension of intense yet – for this composer – surprisingly understated desolation which he consistently uncovers.

Previn’s programme note about the film music he conducts on the second disc of this ‘twofer’ also implies that, maybe because of his own background and gifts, he has a particularly profound understanding of Korngold’s music. Essentially he argues that the conventional portrayal of Korngold’s decline from wunderkind of genius to Hollywood hack is deeply misleading, above all because his music hardly changed in the course of his career. “It was just that the lushness of his harmonies and his extraordinary orchestration lent themselves readily to motion pictures”, Previn writes. And so, because he was the best, Korngold came to be imitated by many other Hollywood composers, with the result that “the sound that he had originated became a sort of byword for ‘Hollywood’, and soon thereafter became everybody’s favourite pejorative term when talking about his music. What it actually comes down to is that a great deal of film music began to sound like Korngold, as opposed to Korngold sounding like Hollywood”.

I am happy to buy that, especially when Previn demonstrates, on this disc, just how closely Korngold the film composer resembles Korngold the ‘serious’ writer of symphonic music. The point is made especially tellingly by the suite from The Prince and the Pauper (1937), which features a folk dance that, suitably developed and transformed, forms the basis of the finale of the Violin Concerto which we have just heard on the companion disc. Elsewhere too, though, one registers that themes or motifs standardly undergo a degree of detailed ‘symphonic’ development rare in film music, and that the various sequences represented on the disc would work well as coherent symphonic suites if presented as such in the concert hall.

With the exception of the incidental music Korngold wrote for a 1920 Vienna production of Much Ado about Nothing (and which is perhaps more familiar in an arrangement for violin and piano), all the music on the second disc was composed between 1935 and 1940 for use in films starring Errol Flynn. As such there is a good deal of swashbuckling bombast and virtuoso orchestration; but there is also no shortage of slower, quieter episodes in which Korngold gives full rein to his gift for sumptuous, long-breathed melody. Indeed, it is some of these moments of relative repose that linger most stubbornly in the memory. One thinks of passages such as the intensely romantic ‘Reunion’ of The Sea Hawk, the heart-rendingly wistful ‘Lady Penelope’ of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, or the haunting and unsettling ‘Sold into Slavery’ from Captain Blood. In movements such as these one remains acutely aware of being in the presence of greatness, and thoroughly willing to accept Korngold’s assurance that “even if I wanted to, I could not write below my standard”. It goes without saying, probably, that the LSO relishes all the opportunities he gives them both for virtuosity and for tenderness, and that Previn inspires the listener with absolute confidence that he knows how this music should sound.

An unequivocal recommendation, then, for an issue which offers over 2½ hours of top-notch music, superbly performed and vividly recorded.

Nigel Harris



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