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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto, Op 35 (1937, revised 1945) [24:48]
String Sextet in D major, Op 10 (1914-16) [31:31]
Andrew Haveron (violin)
RTÉ Concert Orchestra/John Wilson
Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble
rec. 2015/19, Studio 1, RTÉ, Dublin & Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20135 [56:32]

Towards the end of 2019, I reviewed a fine recording by John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London devoted to music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Impressed, I expressed the hope that conductor and orchestra might give us more Korngold recordings and, in a way, they have. However, this new disc, though issued second, isn’t exactly a follow-up to the first disc. The recordings of the Korngold symphony and the other orchestral works were made in January 2019, just about a week before six members of the Sinfonia of London took the present performance of the String Sextet into the studio. The recording of the Violin Concerto, which uses a different orchestra, was set down some three years earlier and I can only assume its release has been delayed for want of a suitable coupling. The choice of a chamber work to partner this concerto on disc is unusual but it turns out to be very rewarding.

The excellent notes by Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll guide us expertly through both works. He reminds us that the concerto as we know it today was begun in the 1930s but only completed some years after the composer had escaped Nazi-occupied Austria and settled permanently in the USA. Carroll shows us how Korngold recycled into his concerto excellent material from earlier scores.

The first movement is opened by the soloist with a theme that is so succulent and memorable. Andrew Haveron voices this alluringly, and throughout the movement he excels in the many passages of yearningly nostalgic music. The main theme is ripe and gorgeous yet Brendan Carroll rightly draws attention to the crucial role played in the melody by the use of one dissonant note, G sharp. One might say that this wonderful melody may be very sweet but has a touch of piquancy as well, just to temper the sweetness. Haveron is equally successful in the more energetic episodes. The support from John Wilson and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra is absolutely first rate and they allow us to appreciate fully Korngold’s warm and colourful scoring.

Mr Carroll doubts that there’s a more luscious slow movement in the twentieth century concerto repertoire. I wouldn’t disagree with that. At the bewitching start of the movement, Haveron plays with great poetry but I relished also the lovely accompaniment in which the harp, celeste and vibraphone are such delectable constituents. The movement is a wonderful, pensive Romance and Korngold’s writing is diaphanous throughout, even in the short central episode, which has a little more energy. Andrew Haveron and the orchestra display great sensitivity in their performance. For the most part the finale is puckish in nature. It provides a thorough test of the soloist’s technique and it also shows considerable compositional virtuosity. The main thrust of this movement may be ebullient high spirits, but even so Korngold also allows himself the luxury of a generously lyrical version of the theme. Haveron and his allies perform this finale with panache.

I greatly enjoyed this performance. It’s a super account of a work that should lift any listener’s spirits and, my goodness, we need our spirits lifted right now.

I’ve heard the Violin Concerto many times but I blush to admit that the Sextet was new to me. Korngold composed it between 1914 and 1916, so it’s a product of his late teens. Young he may have been, but the composition reveals great maturity. The work is scored for pairs of violins, violas and cellos. The presence of four instruments from the alto and tenor sections of the string choir might lead one to expect heaviness in the scoring, but such is not the case. The sound of the ensemble is frequently rich but Korngold’s handling of textures is very impressive and richness never falls into heaviness.

There are four movements. The first is a large-scale, ambitious creation. Korngold’s trademark melodiousness pervades the writing but there are occasional flashes of acerbic, sharply pointed music to keep everyone on their toes (for example around 4:00). The music is often complex and yet Korngold’s skilful part-writing means that the music never becomes congested – of course, credit for that must be shared with the players. Perhaps an idea of the varied nature of the movement can be gleaned from the fact that there are no less than 26 separate tempo indications listed in the Chandos booklet; and this in a movement that plays for just under ten minutes! I love the slow, beautiful coda which is followed by one last, short burst of energy.

Brendan Carroll describes the slow movement as “an anguished miniature tone poem for strings”. I gather from his commentary that the movement is ostensibly in the key of G major but I have to say that I struggled to detect a key, so freely and adventurously does Korngold range in his tonality. The music is very intense and searching; indeed, I don’t think that the comparison that Brendan Carroll draws with Verklärte Nacht is out of court. Frankly, the movement is an astonishing conception for a teenager; it’s superbly executed in this performance.

The third movement is an Intermezzo. It’s in a much more light-hearted vein than its predecessor and it provides a highly effective contrast. The tone of voice is very Viennese. Both music and performance are highly engaging. The finale is, for the most part, a high-energy Presto and it’s inventive and entertaining. There’s also a fine lyrical and expansive section near the end, just before the brief, spirited coda.

This sextet is a prodigious achievement, especially for so young a composer. The level of invention is consistently high and throughout the work Korngold handles his material and his instrumental forces with confidence and great skill. Though the pieces are very different, the comparison that came to my mind more than once was the String Sextet from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Both pieces show a complete command of the medium of six stringed instruments but, of course, the key difference, that Strauss was a highly experienced composer and some six decades older than Korngold was at the time he wrote this Sextet. The performance by Andrew Haveron and his colleagues in the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble is very fine indeed.

This disc offers an unexpected pairing of works but it works extremely well and both performances are excellent.

These two recordings were made in very different venues but each case the sound in extremely good and suits the work in question. As I’ve already indicated, the notes by Brendan Carroll are a decided asset. I hope that this second release of Korngold conducted by John Wilson indicates that a series is planned. On the basis of the two releases to date, such a series would be both rewarding and enjoyable.

John Quinn

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones

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