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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Symphony in F-Sharp, Op.40 (Dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1947–52) [44:34]
Theme and Variations for School Orchestra, Op.42 (1953) [7:47]
Straussiana for Orchestra after Johann Strauss (Dedicated to the American School Orchestras, 1953) [6:37]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London, 14–16 January 2019. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from chandos.net.
CHANDOS CHSA5220 SACD [59:17]

I promise not to mention the old chestnut about Korngold’s music being more corn than … Oops, I nearly did. In any case, what matters is the quality of the corn. The seventeenth-century poet Traherne, recalling his memories of childhood in almost Wordsworthian terms, combines images of the ripening corn with gold, in words set by Finzi in Dies Natalis1: ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.’

The violin concerto receives more outings than the symphony, but there are several recordings, including from the LSO and André Previn (DG Eloquence 4823438, 2 CDs, budget-price, with Violin Concerto, etc. – review review of single-CD release), Marc Albrecht in Strasbourg (PentaTone PTC5186373, SACD, with Much Ado about Nothing review) and the BBC Philharmonic with Sir Edward Downes (Chandos CHAN10431X, lower-mid-price, with Abschiedslieder). The Chandos was Dan Morgan’s Rediscovery of the Month in DL News 2015/5. I reviewed it with the Pentatone in February 2011, and I’ve made it my benchmark for the new recording on the same label. If SACD is not a priority, it’s good value at around £7.00 (CD) or as a download from chandos.net (mp3 £4.99, 16-bit £7.99) but the 24-bit costs £13.99, like the new recording.

The automatic expectation would be that because Korngold and John Wilson are both associated in our minds with film and middle-of-the-road music, they should go together on this occasion like a horse and carriage. They do, but not necessarily for that reason.

If you were thinking of Korngold’s often exciting and always approachable film music, you may wish to think again before tackling the symphony. This is Korngold the serious composer who had had to abandon his career before fleeing the Nazis and following fellow-Austrian Max Steiner to Hollywood to earn his living. In 1945 Korngold’s father, who had never been happy about his son’s composing film music, died after a difficult illness, so the dedication of the score to President FD Roosevelt, who had died before seeing the end of the war, must partly have been made with his father in mind. Like the third string quartet which he composed in 1944/45, it’s a return to the style of his first two quartets from 1920-23 and 1933, performed with No.3 by the Doric Quartet on another Chandos recording (CHAN10611, also reviewed in February 2011).

It’s a serious work, but not unapproachable – no undue influence from the dreaded Schoenberg school, but with much in common with Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. Composed 1944-47 and revised in 1952, VW always denied the influence of the war, but the dark clouds of that period are never far away and they can be perceived in the Korngold Symphony, too, though both works also contain plenty of happier, more optimistic, passages.

I’ve already indicated that the earlier Chandos recording and the PentaTone are both very good; if the couplings appeal, either would make a strong recommendation, so it was brave, but typical, of Chandos to offer a new recording. Like Korngold himself, John Wilson has now turned – not permanently, we hope – from film to concert music. He has done so, not with his own orchestra but with a name from the past revived, that of the Sinfonia of London. The old Sinfonia was a scratch group which varied from recording to recording – usually for EMI subsidiary World Record Club – with members drawn from the top London orchestras.

Re-established by Wilson in 2018, we are promised new Chandos recordings from them. That clearly won’t prevent him, however, as a pluralist by merit, from working with his own orchestra and others: even as I write, I’m downloading his new recording of Eric Coates, Volume 1 no less, with the BBC Philharmonic (CHAN20036: including The Jester at the Wedding, rarely recorded complete, and, inevitably, By the Sleepy Lagoon and the London Suite, both of which have been mined for familiar radio title tunes).

On this occasion the sound of the Sinfonia of London suits the music to a t. The term ‘scratch ensemble’ always gave the wrong impression about the earlier Sinfonia at their best, as witness their celebrated Elgar recording with Sir John Barbirolli, but it’s even less applicable to the new incarnation. I could well imagine that that other European emigré to America, George Szell, who moulded the Cleveland Orchestra to his satisfaction, would have been equally pleased with what they produce. And, I hardly need to add that Chandos achieve a recording quality, especially in 24-bit format and, presumably on SACD, that US Columbia (CBS) didn’t produce for Szell. Or RCA for Eugene Ormandy with his equally renowned Philadelphia players.

They certainly cope superbly with the demands which Wilson makes of them, not least in terms of very fast tempi. Downes, on the earlier Chandos recording, offers a distinguished performance at mid-price. Wilson leaves him standing in every single movement, but he does so without in any way allowing the music to sound superficial. I’ve already mentioned the symphony’s affinity to Vaughan Williams’ Sixth, another work which requires depth without histrionics, and the new recording sharpens that analogy even further.

The two works for amateur orchestras are enjoyable – has Straussiana ever featured in the Vienna New Year’s Day concerts? – but their brevity means that the new recording is shorter on playing time than that of Downes, whose offering of Abschiedslieder means that the older Chandos remains valuable. At around £7, it won’t break the bank to obtain it in addition to its new sibling, but the Lieder can be downloaded separately, currently for a 25% discount, at £3.20 in lossless sound or £4.80 in 24-bit2. Most other recordings of these Songs of Farewell come with piano accompaniment.

Go for the new Sinfonia of London recording, then, with John Wilson at the helm of a very fine performance, but bear in mind the Abschiedslieder on the older recording. And don’t overlook the several other Chandos Korngold recordings made by Matthias Bamert, now mostly at mid-price, unless and until – as I hope – some of the works on them also receive the John Wilson treatment. Meanwhile, a ‘Recommended’ logo for the current revelatory release seems to be mandatory. There’s plenty of gold here and a distinct lack of corn in the pejorative sense.

1 The wonderful recording by Christopher Finzi of his father’s music is now available only as part of a 6-hour download, but it comes with equally wonderful recordings of Vaughan Williams (Oxford Elegy, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs, etc.), Bax and Holst for around £24 in lossless sound (Warner British Classics 0954332). Single-CD budget-price recordings of Dies Natalis from Hyperion – review – and Naxos – review review – are also very worthwhile.
2 I should mention that one UK dealer is asking almost 50% more for the new SACD than another - more, in fact in £ than a US dealer in $, and that’s not due just to the brexit-afflicted £.

Brian Wilson



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