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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony in F sharp, Op. 40 [53:07]
Much Ado about Nothing: suite for chamber orchestra Op. 11 [10:12]
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. June 1996, All Hallows Church,. Gospel Oak, London

Korngold’s story is a sad one. Hailed as a Wunderkind in his youth, he started having his works performed by leading performers in his teens. He was at the height of his fame in 1920 when his opera Die tote Stadt had its premiere. Even before the premiere in 1927 of his next opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, arguably his finest work, his career had begun to fizzle out. He worked more on adapting operettas than on writing his own works. Fortunately, he got involved in writing film music, which led to his and his family’s escape from Austria when the Nazis arrived. During the war he supported three families with his film music. After the war people looked down on his involvement in Hollywood and his idiom was seen as old-fashioned and out of date. His two finest late concert works, the symphony and the violin concerto, aroused little interest, despite Heifetz recording the concerto. He had been forgotten before he died.

Interest in his music began to revive in the 1970s with recordings of some of his film music (RCA Classic Film Scores series - Charles Gerhardt) and his opera Die tote Stadt (RCA Leinsdorf). Gradually, his works have been rehabilitated, with the Violin Concerto now a repertory work; indeed Previn recorded it for DG with Anne-Sophie Mutter. The Symphony has not yet been quite so well established but its time will come. Every time I hear it, it impresses me more, particularly in this 1993 recording by Previn which itself seems to me one of the best things Previn has done.

The idiom of the symphony is not quite the lush one of Korngold’s pre-war works. I would characterize it as Mahler rewritten by Prokofiev. There is an astringency and a rhythmic bite which one might not expect of him. It is full of good tunes, some of them deriving from his film scores, but it is a well organized and coherent work and one which it is easy to follow. The first movement begins with an aspiring but faltering theme which is immediately undermined by some savage percussive chords. Their dispute dominates the movement. The scherzo which follows with its pungent main motif and restless energy is a cousin to those in Walton’s First and Prokofiev’s Fifth symphonies. A contrasting theme is more confidently heroic than the main theme of the first movement. The slow movement is a Mahlerian threnody, and the solo violin passage which comes about half way through could even have been by him. The finale pretends to be cheerful but there is an undercurrent of sadness, reinforced when the opening theme returns.

Previn has always excelled at music of this kind, with his recordings of Walton and Prokofiev long being staples. He also understands the world of film music from the inside. He has a complete command of the score and the London Symphony Orchestra follows him gladly, although this recording long postdates the period when he was their principal conductor. Of the recordings I have heard this is equal or superior to that of Franz Welser-Möst with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI, 1995) and superior to that of Edward Downes with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 10431X, 1992).

The coupling is four numbers from Korngold’s incidental music to a lavish production of Much Ado about Nothing. This version is for chamber orchestra, but Korngold also made a version for violin and piano, which Previn recorded as pianist with Gil Shaham with their version of the Korngold concerto (DG 0289 439 8862 9 ). In both versions Previn omits the Overture. The remaining four numbers are charming light music, sympathetically performed here.

The recording, made in a church, is big and beefy, as suits the symphony in particular. The notes are really helpful and identify the sources of the themes in the symphony from Korngold’s wartime film scores. This is a classic version of the symphony and the coupling is a delight.

Stephen Barber

Previous review (part of box set): Rob Barnett


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