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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony in F-sharp, Op 40 (1947-52) [44:34]
Theme and Variations, Op 42 (1953) [7:47]
Straussiana (1953) [6:37]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London

Before considering the contents of this SACD, let me begin by saying a word about the orchestra. Many readers will recognise the name of the Sinfonia of London, not least for its participation in the classic disc of English music for string orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (review). That orchestra, founded in 1955, ceased operations sometime in the 1960s. I understand that the Sinfonia was re-established in the late 1980s to play for film and TV soundtracks. Its third incarnation came about in 2018 when John Wilson re-formed it. It would appear from the Chandos booklet that, initially at least, the Sinfonia will be a recording orchestra. On the evidence of this disc, the orchestra’s return is very welcome.

Given that his reputation has been founded in part on his work with the scores for classic musicals and films, it’s interesting that John Wilson should have chosen the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold for the Sinfonia’s debut disc in its latest incarnation. As is well known, Korngold established a significant career for himself as a composer for the movies when he fled Europe and settled in the USA. It used to be maintained by some people – lazily and unfairly, I think – that Korngold “sold out” when he went to work in Hollywood. Leaving aside any considerations that the poor man had to earn a living once he’d been forced into exile by the rise of the Nazis, the musical evidence doesn’t really support that allegation. When doing my homework for this review, I re-read the note which André Previn wrote to accompany his DG set of Korngold recordings, including the Symphony and selections from the film scores. Previn, who was well placed to judge given his deep Hollywood background, made the case for Korngold with conviction: “Actually, the vocabulary of his music didn’t change [after he began working in Hollywood]; it was just that the lushness of his harmonies and his extraordinary orchestrations lent themselves readily to motion pictures. He was the best motion picture composer living and an extraordinary number of his colleagues began to copy him…...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 first encountered Korngold’s symphony decades ago in Rudolf Kempe’s pioneering 1972 recording. That was on an LP borrowed several times from the local record library. However, I never bought Kempe’s recording, as either an LP or, later, as a CD, so I haven’t heard it in ages. I own and have long admired Previn’s 1996 DG recording and the 1993 BBC Philharmonic version with Sir Edward Downes for Chandos (CHAN 9171 now CHAN 10431 X). In its current Eloquence incarnation as a “two-fer”, the Previn recording, coupled with Gil Shaam’s 1993 recording of the Violin Concerto and Previn’s 2001 recordings of a number of film scores, is, as my colleague Nigel Harris observed, “both an ideal Korngold primer and a remarkable bargain” (review).

When I first listened to the new John Wilson recording, I was taken aback – in a good way – by the biting drama and tension in the performance of the first movement, qualities which are enhanced by a detailed and potent Chandos recording. The movement’s second theme is gently voiced by the woodwind (3:51), offering a brief relaxation until the return of the intense, martial music (5:26) which is incisive and punchy in this performance. Wilson brings genuine urgency to the proceedings, leading a taut, gripping performance. There’s a real sense of theatre about Korngold’s music, reminding us that he was a notable operatic composer before he became a composer for the movies. Wilson takes just 12:33 for this movement which, as we shall see in a moment, is considerably quicker than most of his rivals. It’s certainly swifter than either Previn or Downes. Previn, who takes 15:55, is very good but he doesn’t quite emulate the drama in Wilson’s reading. His overall approach is somewhat broader and that brings its own rewards, especially since the LSO offer magnificent playing and the 1996 DG sound is still impressive. Downes sits somewhere between the two – his performance plays for 14:14. His performance isn’t as thrusting as Wilson’s, though the BBC Philharmonic plays very well for him. The Chandos recording is excellent but, 26 years later the company provided even better engineering for Wilson. Just before settling down to write up this review I searched and found Ian Lace’s review of the Kempe recording. Ian helpfully lists movement-by-movement timings for 9 versions and I noted with interest that the only other conductor with a similar timing to Wilson is Franz Welser-Möst (12:50). However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and even though it seems that Wilson’s tense, urgent approach isn’t necessarily followed by the majority of his colleagues on disc I found it bracing and very convincing.

Wilson really puts the cat among the pigeons in the Scherzo. Referring back to Ian’s timings table again, I see that only Kempe and Welser-Möst despatch the movement in less than 10 minutes. Wilson is like the wind and his performance lasts 8:21. The notes observe that the movement requires “virtuosic articulation” and the Sinfonia of London deliver the goods. At 1:26 there’s an heroic theme for the horns, which is straight out of the Hollywood playbook. It comes over very well here. The sharply contrasting trio, aptly described in the notes as a “ghostly lullaby”, is played with finesse and imagination by Wilson and his orchestra. I think Wilson’s performance of this movement is terrific. Downes is a lot steadier than Wilson – he takes 10:14. As a result, perhaps the performance isn’t as exciting as Wilson’s. On the other hand, I think there’s a case to be made that at the steadier speed the horns can then ring out more exultantly, which is what Downes achieves. Previn’s pacing is similar to Downes, as his timing of 10:32 suggests. In his performance the music is strongly articulated and the magnificent LSO horns sweep the board when they get their moment in the sun.

The slow movement is profound and searching. Wilson’s overall timing is 13:40, which puts him well ahead of all the conductors listed by Ian Lace. By the clock he may seem comparatively swift but I feel that he conducts the movement in a really convincing fashion, giving the music breadth and space but always maintaining good momentum. The climaxes are powerful and the playing of the Sinfonia of London is consistently ardent, even at quieter dynamic levels. Korngold’s music is highly impressive; it’s romantic but never sentimental (try, for example, the string-dominated episode just after 11:00). Both Previn and Downes adopt a broader approach. Previn invests the movement with genuine gravitas and both he and Downes give the music an almost Brucknerian breadth. They are very impressive but I think that Wilson’s greater sense of flow doesn’t rob the music of anything while, at the same time, proposing a different dimension.

The finale is a good foil to the seriousness of the slow movement. Here, Korngold is mainly extrovert and good humoured, though there are some reminiscences of the dark first movement. Wilson leads an ebullient and incisive performance and, indeed, all three of our conductors do this very well. Downes is a bit steadier than Wilson but still conveys the movement’s lighter countenance. Previn is similarly steadier but I like the way that he and the LSO bring out the cheekiness that there is in the music at times.

So, where do these comparisons leave us. John Wilson’s performance is quite fleet of foot: he brings the symphony in at 44:34, whereas Previn takes 53:06 and Downes 51:30. I’m certainly not going to discard my copies of Previn or Downes; these comparisons have reminded me how impressive both of them are. However, John Wilson’s excellent performance, superbly played and recorded, offers a refreshing and stimulating different perspective on this fine symphony.

Wilson’s couplings are lighter in tone than the symphony. Apparently, Straussiana was Korngold’s last completed work. Since the Theme and Variations was its companion piece perhaps that was his penultimate work. Both pieces owe their existence to a commission from the American School Orchestras Association in 1953 and Korngold gave them two pieces – I wonder if he thought the Theme and Variations wasn’t long enough? That piece must have come first because he allotted it the catalogue number Op 42 but, according to the notes, he declined to give Straussiana an opus number, believing superstitiously that he wouldn’t live to compose anything beyond the opus number 42.

The Theme and Variations is based on a tune which Korngold directs to be played ‘like an Irish folk tune’. It’s well described in the notes as a “shy, simple little theme”. There follow seven concise variations and though these aren’t separately tracked it’s easy to spot where one gives way to another. The first three are swift in tempo. Variation IV (at 2:47) is slower and delicious. Delicious, too, is the other slow variation, Variation IV (4:17). The last variation (5:36) is the longest section; it takes the form of a colourful, vital march that culminates in a resolute, celebratory ending. This short work is inventive and highly accomplished. I’d not heard it before and I enjoyed both work and performance.

Straussiana is based on three pieces by Johann Strauss II, whose music Korngold greatly admired. To Strauss’s original orchestration he added percussion, harp and piano. The results are entertaining. First, we hear Korngold’s take on a Polka - the other Pizzicato Polka, apparently. Then there’s a Mazurka (1:33), followed by a Waltz (3:49), which is full of verve. Straussiana is a pretty slight work but Korngold approached his task with affection and great skill and the piece comes over well in this sparkling performance.

I enjoyed this disc very much indeed, not least for the new light in which John Wilson has caused me to consider Korngold’s symphony. I was a fan already but his way with the score makes me admire it even more. The Sinfonia of London here makes an auspicious return to the recording studio: their playing throughout is top-notch. Chandos already have in their catalogue Sir Edward Downes’ fine recording of the Symphony. That’s not outclassed as an interpretation and performance; rather, the newcomer complements it. However, the Chandos engineering of 2019 is even more impressive than their 1993 effort. Ralph Couzens was the producer of the Downes recording, working alongside engineer Don Hartridge. For Wilson, Ralph Couzens has taken over the engineering desk himself and the results, which have impact and realism ,are in the finest traditions of the house. (I listened to this hybrid SACD using the Stereo option.) Also in the finest traditions of the house is the excellent booklet essay by Korngold biographer, Brendan G. Carroll.

I don’t know what other recording projects John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London have up their sleeve. On the strength of this fine disc, I’d be very pleased if they were to set down more music by Korngold.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month) ~ Dave Billinge

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