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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphonic Serenade for String Orchestra in B flat major Op.39 (1949) [30:02]
String Sextet in D minor Op.10 (arr. for string orchestra by Hartmut Rohde) (1914) [31:46]
NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra/Harmut Rohde
rec. 2017, Main Concert Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland
CPO 555 138-2 [61:55]

This disc leaves me in something of a quandary. It is virtuosically and sensitively played by the excellent NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra under their conductor Hartmut Rohde. The engineering is good if perhaps a tad closer than I would ideally prefer, and the music itself is wonderful. So what is my bone of contention? A simple one really – and the clue is in the title of the first piece – this is a Symphonic Serenade. To my mind, the term “symphonic” does not just apply to the musical construction and scale of the work – a symphony for strings in all but name – but also to the size of the ensemble playing it. After all, Korngold conceived this with the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic in mind, with all the tonal depth and weight that brings to mind. The Vienna strings – or indeed any full symphony orchestra string section – will number somewhere between 50-60 players for big Romantic repertoire. Here the NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra list 21 players in the booklet, split 6:5:4:4:2. The gain is superb ensemble and stunningly accurate playing of these two very demanding scores. But with the Serenade it sounds too small and with the 'upscaled' arrangement of the String Sextet it does not sound that different from the original work.

By playing the sextet in a nominally orchestral version this makes for an interesting and well-conceived programme. The two works pretty much book-end Korngold’s career. The Sextet, a product of his truly prodigious youth, was composed when he was just seventeen. Of course, by that advanced (!) age he already had an impressive catalogue of works behind him, including two operas, two piano sonatas, the big Sinfonietta and other orchestral works, the Piano Trio and Violin Sonata. Brendan G. Carroll's compact but valuable liner notes explain that the work was originally conceived as a quartet but that the music expanded beyond the limitations of four players – in much the same way that Brahms’s two sextets pre-date his quartets. Both Sextet and Serenade are four-movement works, each with an Intermezzo – of very different characters – acting as the scherzo movement (placed second in the Serenade and third in the Sextet). The liner notes also refer to the fact that Korngold conducted a string orchestra version – not arranged by himself – in the early 1950s. The frustration here is that all we are told about the arrangement played here by conductor Rohde is that it "… does not alter a note". The miracle of this work is the remarkably lush textures Korngold generates from just six players, so that when it is given by nineteen, even as well played as it is here, somehow that sense of musical sleight-of-hand is diminished without being replaced by the opulence of a large string section. I feel much the same when comparing either the orchestral or sextet versions of Souvenir of Florence or Verklärte Nacht – those works require a large string section to make the change from chamber to symphonic impact.

That said, I do not think the catalogue contains another version currently of this work in anything except the sextet original, so by that measure alone this might well command your attention. Of the original, there are several fine versions. I have not heard the Doric Quartet’s performance on Chandos. I do like the Flesch Quartet on ASV/Brilliant who have a slightly febrile neurotic approach to this highly Romantic music. I also think the fast vibrato and focused sweet tone of the Flesch first violin Philippa Ibbotson suits this music perfectly. This is a remarkable work with so many Korngoldian fingerprints in place. Indeed, this is the enduring criticism of the composer; he somehow sprung into the world as a fully-formed composer and his music written in his teens is not that different in style content or approach from what he was writing forty years later. Perhaps most impressive in both works are the slow movements. In the Sextet, this is placed second and marked Adagio. I like the daringly slow speed the Flesch performance choose – spinning this achingly beautiful music out to 10:10. On the new recording, Rohde chooses a much more flowing tempo, coming in at 8:47. I have to say both versions work extremely well – the new disc more tortured and pained, the Flesch less emotionally extreme but very beautiful. The Intermezzo that follows is absurdly sophisticated for a teenager to have written – almost a Viennese waltz but slipping out of that rhythm the moment it seems to have embraced it. Again, the Flesch emphasise the wisp-like fragility of the music, while the new disc finds something altogether more robust if less subtle. Likewise, the Flesch are playful in the Finale where the NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra are a fraction weightier – not just through their extra players – but with accents more marked. Again, both versions work well but I think the Flesch find greater wit and subtlety over all.

Turning to the Serenade – here there are several direct comparative versions. CPO themselves provide competition in the guise of Werner Andreas Albert’s four-disc survey of Korngold’s orchestral music with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie. This set of discs was one of CPO’s earlier releases, and was very welcome in providing a unified and relatively comprehensive survey of most of Korngold’s major concert works. Indeed, it was the first version of the Serenade I heard, and for that I am eternally grateful. But it has to be said that as both performances and recordings the early CPO discs do not lead the field. The Korngold surveys from Chandos with the BBC – which did include the Serenade – and ASV in Linz – which did not – are preferable technically and musically. Decca also released a performance as part of their Entartete series that rather unusually included an extended suite from Korngold’s music to the film Between Two Worlds. There is another relatively recent version on ASV Gold with Simone Pittau conducting the LSO. Pittau certainly pulls out all the stops to go for a large-scale big sound with broad tempi and a warm recording bulking up the strings of the LSO. Regardless of execution or interpretation, this strikes me as the performance that seeks to make an expansive symphonic sound. Next to the LSO, the strings of the BBC PO can sound efficient and well drilled but without the sensual sweep that I think this music requires. On Decca, Mauceri’s Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin players sound a rehearsal short of the kind of confidence this music requires, which was much the same problem that afflicted Albert’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie.

So it comes down to a straight fight between the brilliance and skill of the NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra and their lean and lively approach against the stately grandeur of the LSO. As ever, there are gains and losses in both approaches. Again, I feel the new recording misses a trick with the superb slow movement – a Lento religioso – not registering as cathartically here at a flowing 10:24 compared to Pittau's emotion-laden 13:09. The LSO’s saturated string sound set back in a generous acoustic seems very appropriate too in this movement. Conversely the quicksilver Intermezzo – in effect a pizzicato ostinato – is much much better on this new disc with the engineering and number of players making the LSO sound less articulate and comfortable. In this movement the BBC PO’s rather objective approach under Matthias Bamert actually works rather well. The NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra have the last say with a bustling “happy-ever-after” finale a full minute and a half quicker than the rather more serious LSO – the new version making more of the con fuoco instruction.

As the above comparisons will have made clear, this is a case of nip and tuck between the considered versions. But, and here I return to my original quandary, despite the palpable excellence of this new disc, if I had to point listeners towards single versions of both works I would feel honour-bound to prefer those that stayed closer to the original conceptions. Hence, I would prefer a true string sextet for the Sextet and a large symphonic string section for the Serenade. This is in no way to diminish the quality of the music making in Wrocław. If top-notch chamber orchestra playing is your thing, this is up there with the best. I do wish the engineers had placed the orchestra further back into the acoustic of the National Forum of Music in Wrocław. The liner notes quote several international performers extolling the quality of the hall but as presented here you cannot make any judgement as to its virtues. I guess the closeness of the microphone positioning – which to be fair is not oppressively close – was made to maximise the impact of the relatively small group of players.

Having the liner – in the usual German and English only – written by Korngold specialist Brendan G. Carroll is a major plus and a huge improvement on the convoluted verbosity that used to ruin so many liner notes for CPO discs. Throughout, Hartmut Rohde makes intelligent musical choices which play to the considerable strengths of his ensemble. Ultimately, I feel these are not the most searching or challenging of interpretations but ones that allow the quality of the music to speak for itself.

Nick Barnard



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