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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony 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
SACD/CD Hybrid, Stereo/Surround 5.0

From the start I would like to refer readers to my extended article/review of this fascinating Korngold Symphony in which I include the movement timings of recordings by nine conductors: Rudolf Kempe, Werner Andreas Albert, Sir Edward Downes, Franz Welser Möst, André Previn, James De Preist, Marc Albrecht John Storgårds and Pedro Halffter. My conclusions rated Rudolf Kempe Varèse Sarabande VSD-5346 (1972) (Munich Philharmonic Orchestra), Sir Edward Downes Chandos CHAN 9171 (1992) (BBC Philharmonic) and Marc Albrecht Pentatone PTC5186373 (2010) (Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg) as the best recordings in that descending order of preference.

I have to declare at once that this new Chandos recording does not, except in respect of its high quality Super Audio CD, tempt me to change my opinion about the ratings of the best recordings of this work as stated in the introductory paragraph above.

The first thing I noticed was that this new Chandos recording differs markedly in one respect with each one of these other readings. Wilson is consistently faster in his tempi than all of the competition and across all four of the Symphony’s four movements. Personally I have mixed feelings about this tendency although I do believe there is room for Wilson’s less-sentimental and more rugged approach.

Wilson takes Korngold’s Moderato ma energetico marking of the opening movement more literally than some, and his timing comes in at 12.33 faster than all the competition but not that much slower than Kempe at 14.12. With Chandos’s super audio sound, Wilson’s reading is revealed in splendid detail with wide and deep perspectives, and his reading has bite and pace. His view of this first movement is unsettling – violent, brutal even. The events of the time of the composition of this work are not forgotten – the aftermath of World War II and a wartime-ravaged Vienna – although Wilson’s 2019 wider viewpoint very well balances the opposite emotions of reason, stability, consideration and compassion.

The extraordinary Scherzo is very successful here: the swift, energetic, quicksilver section beautifully contrasted with the ambivalent, mistily-floating Molto tranquillo, dolce, passages.

But the emotional heart of Korngold’s Symphony is the lovely Adagio Lento. Wilson’s reading of this movement is profoundly moving. Its moments of acute anguish and tragedy contrasted with the tenderly romantic – á la Steiner and the Hollywood Korngold. Interestingly this album’s notes make no reference at all to Korngold’s Hollywood music even though there are references to it in the Symphony’s score!

Wilson’s reading of the Finale is taken at a cracking pace, faster, at 9.44, than any of the competition, bringing the work to a sturdy conclusion.

The fill-ups are in a lighter vein. The Theme and Variations for School Orchestra is a warmly Americana nostalgic piece and the Straussiana a sort of delightful Beecham lollipop.

I must complain that Chandos have given us short measure here with less than an hour total playing time. Surely another major Korngold work could have been accommodated on this CD. Nevertheless, I hope that John Wilson will record more Korngold for Chandos – perhaps some of the major film scores like the all of the music for Kings Row?

Ian Lace
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month) ~ Dave Billinge ~ John Quinn

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