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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. 2015/2019, Studio 1, RTÉ, Dublin & Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20135 [56:32]

Erich Wolfgang Korngold has been gaining in stature over the past couple decades or so, though his sole big hit remains this violin concerto. The Symphony in F-sharp and opera Die tote Stadt have also gotten some notice over the years, but recent attention to the previously neglected operas Das Wunder der Heliane, Die Katrin and Violanta have aided in his positive reevaluation as well. He has come a long way from the days when his reputation was hampered by such pronouncements as critic Irving Kolodin's dismissive remark about his violin concerto, “more corn than gold.” Well, now consensus is the work is, “more gold than corn.” But what of the String Sextet here, a little known early piece? And, of course, how about the performances on this Chandos CD?

First, a note on the violinist... Andrew Haveron has served as leader of the John Wilson Orchestra since its 1994 founding and has held the post of concertmaster in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 2013. He is a former member of the Brodsky Quartet as first violinist from 1999 to 2007, and in the latter year took the position of leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 2012 he joined the Philharmonia Orchestra, taking the post of co-concertmaster. So, he has had a very busy career, and though he has appeared on other recordings this is apparently his first solo concerto recording.

In Korngold's Violin Concerto he takes a rather lush approach in his phrasing, not a surprising choice. He points up the soaring beauty of Korngold's lyrical themes, but wisely doesn't attempt to milk them for excessive sentiment or to linger too long over phrases. His tempos tend to be in the moderate range and in the end he presents a mostly straightforward account of this concerto. Korngold's themes, by the way, are sourced in then-recent film scores of his: Another Dawn (1937), Juarez (1939), Anthony Adverse (1939) and The Prince and the Pauper (1937).

Haveron makes the two lyrical themes in the first movement truly sing, infusing them with passion, but as suggested doesn't try to reach beyond their expressive character with excessive rubato or other eccentric phrasing in hopes of extracting greater emotional impact. He captures the colorful character of the playful music that appears between the two themes, and delivers the cadenza that comes at the heart of the movement brilliantly, playing with panache but where called for, a measure of grit as well.

The second movement features an even more lush Romantic character, and Haveron's phrasing of the lyrical melodies is thus much the same as in the first movement: he doesn't yield to the temptation to add sugar or overheated emotion by bending the music's flow with overly flexible tempo shifts or other excesses, but rather lets the music speak for itself. In the finale he points up the playfulness and humor, again with judicious tempos, well chosen dynamics and a keen sense for accenting. John Wilson gets solid support for him from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, an Ireland-based ensemble who perform multi-genre music both in concert and for broadcast on the RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann).

The String Sextet, while recognizably from the same pen as the concerto, is quite a different work and, remarkably, the product of Korngold's teenage years. It has a typical post-Romantic richness in its lyrical themes and divulges the same kind of deft writing in its instrumentation. Yet, it is more complex, if also less formally tidy, and one senses its music yearns for a larger instrumental dressing, perhaps even for full-orchestra scoring. The first movement offers an attractive main theme that is similar, at least in part, to the opening theme in Dvořák's Violin Concerto. Soon Korngold's music becomes fiery and agitated before returning to the kind of mood from the opening, but now with another lyrical melody. The development section is quite interesting in its fugal complexity and stormy character. The recapitulation is largely serene and the coda quite lively.

The second movement is a mostly subdued but somewhat dark and mysterious Adagio, based on an earlier song. The mood at times turns rather anguished, yet rapturous too in its gushing lyricism, before returning to the more stable manner of the opening. The ensuing panel is a rondo-like Intermezzo of Viennese character, with a quite charming main theme. The music is lively, joyous and elegant, though it exhibits a bit of good-natured mischief too in its diving portamenti and sort of slapstick elegance. The music is more than vaguely reminiscent of Mahler's, although elsewhere in this work that influence is perhaps only barely discernible.

The Presto finale is quite joyful and witty, another breath of fresh air in this mostly optimistic work. One must marvel at the deft writing of the teenaged Korngold here, how he makes the instruments strut with swagger or slash away mischievously or glide nonchalantly, always achieving some subtle humorous twist or effect. He quotes or alludes to themes in the previous movements, in the end crowning the work with a brilliant final chapter.

The members of the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble perform brilliantly throughout, their playing divulging much meaningful detail and with proper instrumental balances. Their tempos appear to be slightly on the brisk side, but perfectly appropriate for this exuberant music. I would surmise that Andrew Haveron, on Violin I, had the greater say in interpretation. His playing throughout is most impressive too: try the haunting second movement where in several key passages he makes his violin sing exquisitely above the other instruments, fittingly so. This is my first exposure to this work, and I must say I am fully convinced by this performance of it.

The very informative album notes are by well known Korngold biographer and admirer Brendan G. Carroll. The sound reproduction on this CD is quite vivid and well balanced in both works. As for the competition, there are of course many alternatives in the concerto. Heifetz, who premiered it on February 15, 1947 in Los Angeles, recorded it in 1953 for RCA. That recording, reissued many times since, looms large and is quite excellent, though more than a few listeners will either not favor its very brisk tempos or want more up to date sonics. Of recent vintage are Ulrike-Anima Mathé on Dorian, from 1994, and Chantal Juillet on Decca, from 1995: both are very good with much to offer, but I believe this new one on Chandos with Haveron is at least as fine. Moreover, it is coupled with a brilliant, spirited performance of the String Sextet, a most intriguing and worthwhile early work.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: Gwyn Parry-Jones ~ John Quinn

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