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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Trio in D major Op.1 (1909-10) [30:35]
String Sextet in D major Op.10 (1914-16) [34:35]
Spectrum Concerts Berlin
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche Berlin 1-2 May 2019 (Sextet), 27-28 November 2019 (Trio)
NAXOS 8.574008 [65:20]

Back in the mid 1970's when Korngold's reputation was at its lowest ebb there appeared a group of recordings that started to turn the critical tide. At the time justifiably famous and revelatory accounts of the Symphony from Kempe, Die Tote Stadt and the "Classic Film Scores" compilations all on RCA, focused on Korngold's sweepingly epic orchestra-based scores. However, apart from a Pacific Art Trio performance of the Piano Trio on Delos and the Chiligirian Quartet's RCA disc of a couple of the string quartets, much of Korngold's other music including his richly rewarding and remarkable chamber music remained unrecorded. Wind forward a decade and these omissions started to be corrected by the Etcetera label, produced by the indefatigable George Korngold, who released a disc of the three Piano Sonatas, and possibly most astounding of all, a disc of the Piano Trio Op.1 and the String Sextet Op.10.

Korngold's literally prodigious ability remains one of the best-known facts about him. But even so, to listen to this trio completed before his thirteenth birthday and the sextet written some five years later, is to marvel all over again at the unbelievable sophistication and maturity of the music. There are many composers who have lived long and fulfilling lives whilst never achieving this level of rich invention and certainty of musical gesture. Since those pioneering recordings over thirty five years ago both works have received several fine recordings but as far as I am aware, not with the trio and sextet coupled together again. This is a pairing I enjoy very much - perhaps because it was my introduction to both works - so I am pleased to report that both works receive wonderfully bravura and heart-felt performances on this new disc.

Not that the Etcetera disc performed by the Berlin Sextet and Göbel Trio Berlin should be forgotten or dismissed. The earlier interpretations are technically secure and sensitively played but what I like about this new recording is that you are in no doubt that this is a young and confident man's music. It can be argued that Korngold pours too much into these scores. He experiments with every possible textural combination of instruments and all kinds of technical effect. The quite superb Spectrum Concerts Berlin relish these potential excesses. In this they are helped by the very rich and full Deutschlandfünk Kultur recording made in the wonderfully generous acoustic of the Jesus-Kirche Berlin. The artistic director of Spectrum Concerts is Frank S. Dodge who brings together elite solo and chamber players as concerts and repertoire demands. But there is no sense that this is an "occasional" ensemble - the technical excellence is a given, but allied to that is a cohesion and unanimity of style that is hugely impressive.

This is apparent from first bar to last. Habakuk Traber's fairly brief but informative liner makes clear that there was some significance to the application of the marking Opus 1 to the score of the Piano Trio. Under Alexander Zemlinsky's watchful eye Korngold has already produced a series of works. But this quasi-symphonic, thirty minute plus trio was the young Korngold's first wholly original work. For all the occasional moments when you might wonder if the composer has got too caught up in the 'what' rather than 'why' he can do something, the overall sweep and impact of the work triumphs. And this is what Boris Brovtsyn on violin, cellist Jens Peter Maintz and Eldar Nebolsin on piano achieve to such great effect; they explore to the maximum every expressive and dramatic opportunity. Next to them The Göbel Trio can sound more introspective and considered. This can bring its own benefits as a half hour of Korngold in full heroic mode can be a thrilling if draining experience. Of course part of the poignancy of listening to both these scores is the reminder of the way that Korngold's own life and career mirrored the final glory and decline of Vienna and wider Austro-German culture. Korngold was not to live long enough to see the full rebirth of that culture.

So where the Trio has the confident certainty of Pre-War Europe, the Sextet already contains the yearning nostalgia for a world fast slipping away. No-where is this more apparent than in the second movement Adagio. If a listener has any empathy for this style of late-Romantic music, this has to be one of its high points. The performance here has an intensity and expressive power the equal of any I have heard. Again direct comparison with the Berlin Sextet performance on Etcetera reveals a difference of musical emphasis with the earlier performance less intensely expressionist with Korngold's long lyrical lines played with affection and fluency. On Brilliant, the Flesch Quartet offer the Sextet as the "filler" to their two disc survey of the three Korngold Quartets. Again this is a good performance but one that lacks the sheer sense of purpose and drive that Spectrum Concerts find. This is not just a matter of tempi or engineering. By emphasising the extremes of the work, the Spectrum Concerts players make the work sound more 'modernist' and forward looking. The warmer, more reflective approach of both the Berlin Sextet and the expanded Flesch Quartet allows the work to look back at its heritage rather than forward.

I have not heard the relatively recent set of quartets, quintet and sextet from the Doric Quartet on Chandos or the Aron Quartet on CPO. The Raphael Ensemble's performance on Hyperion of the sextet coupled with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is another very fine performance but I have to say this new coupling will now be my disc of choice for both works. There is a companion disc from the same artists of the Suite and Piano Quintet which on the strength of this disc I am very keen to hear. For anyone who responds to late Romantic chamber music, these two works are as impressive as they are enjoyable and in performances as committed and accomplished as these they emerge with their stature increased

Nick Barnard

Boris Brovtsyn (violin - Trio & Sextet), Clara-Jumi Kang (violin - Sextet), Gareth Lubbe & Yura Lee (violas - Sextet), Jens-Peter Maintz (cello - Trio & Sextet), Torleif Thedéen (cello - Sextet), Eldar Nebolsin (piano - Trio)