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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto, op. 35 [24:48]
String Sextet, op.10 [31:31]
Andrew Haveron (violin)
RTÉ Concert Orchestra/John Wilson,
Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble
rec. 2015/19, Dublin, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN20135 [56:32]

This looks to be a slightly strange coupling at first. But as it works out, pairing Korngold’s most popular concert work from his mature years with a very early piece of chamber music is an inspired choice. Korngold was one of the most remarkable of musical prodigies, prompting Richard Strauss to comment “One's first reaction that these compositions are by a child are those of awe and concern that so precocious a genius should follow its normal development. … This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!” Those remarks from the famously phlegmatic Strauss come from 1910, when Korngold was just thirteen. The Sextet here recorded was written just a few years later, and is an astonishing work for a teenager (remembering that Strauss himself was no slouch at that age!).

It is a four-movement work, with a classical profile in the sequence of movements. The most remarkable thing is how strongly the seventeen-year old’s personality shines through every part of the work. Yes, one can perceive the influences - Dvořak perhaps, maybe early Schönberg, Strauss certainly; but the confidence and individualism of the writing is astounding, and the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble respond with delight to all its challenges. Youthful impetuosity brings with it constant changes of tempo – helpfully listed in the booklet – and texture, and the group meets all these requirements with imaginative relish.

The first movement (track 4) sets out happily, but around 3:00 there is the first example of one of the most striking aspects of the piece; a sudden moment of shadow and mystery. The SLCE deal superbly with such moments, and it is this ability to project the extreme contrasts that makes this one of the finest versions on disc.

They also capture the essential character of each movement so well – the cheerful nonchalance of the beginning and much of the first movement, the expressionist languor of the second, the Viennese charm of the third and the choppy vigour of the finale. It is an exceptional work, and this is an exceptional performance.

The textures are often quasi-orchestral, filled with rich, teeming detail. It comes as no surprise therefore that the sextet has been arranged for string orchestra by Hartmut Rhode, and there is a splendid recording by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio (DUX1526). Worth hearing, even if it lacks the special intimacy and flexibility of the chamber version.

I commented on the unusual choice of works for this recording; the common element is the violinist Andrew Haveron, who leads the sextet and is the soloist in the Violin Concerto of 1946. He brings the same qualities to this deeply satisfying reading as we find in his ensemble’s playing of the sextet. He shows a keen understanding of the passionate, rhapsodic nature of Korngold’s writing, yet keeps a firm hold on the rudder at all times. He establishes himself with authority and poetic lyricism from the very start, and is able to deal confidently with the very considerable technical demands this piece throws at the soloist. He plays with great intensity in the glorious central movement, and equally finds a wonderful eloquence for the songful moments of the first movement.

The finale goes, as it should, like the wind, with a sense of celebration and fun. The weightier element brought by the broad second theme (linked to the first of course – the integration of the material in this piece is of the highest symphonic order) is fully realised too, so that all the ingredients are in place.

A word about the orchestra, which is the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. They play with real beauty and imagination, and all the details of Korngold’s orchestration are splendidly realised. The partnership formed between Haveron and John Wilson seems ideal, and the accompaniment of the solo line is always sensitive and responsive.

The work is of course a total anachronism; nobody was supposed to be writing music like this in 1946! Critics have continued to be sniffy to this day, but I’m sure Korngold will have cried all the way to the bank. The Violin Concerto has ’con amore’ written all the way through it, but its composer had made his considerable fortune from his film scores, and really didn’t need to worry too much about haughty brickbats.

An outstanding issue – marvellous music, superbly played and in top-notch Chandos recorded sound.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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