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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Suite, Op 23 (1930) [34:28]
Piano Quintet in E, Op 15 (1921) [30:47]
Spectrum Concerts Berlin
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, November 2019
NAXOS 8.574019 [65:27]

Many of us - at least, many of us who know Korngold - reflexively think of him in connection with lush, romantic "Golden Age" film scores. But that's an incomplete picture: the F-sharp minor Symphony, for all its kaleidoscopic imagination, includes many passages that flirt with darker, Expressionist colours and perspectives.

The 1930 Suite for piano quartet gives us more of that latter style, especially in the first two of its five movements. The Präludium und Fuge offers rather severe harmonies punctuated by Bachish counterpoint; the Walzer works gradually into an angular, Weillesque waltz - think Klemperer-the-composer in his Merry Waltz. The Grotesk begins in an energetic moto perpetuo style; its Trio, while more settled, is not entirely undisturbed. Then, the Lied - actually based on Korngold's song Was du mir bist? - is a lovely, sweetly lyrical interlude; the Rondo, with its dignified opening theme, is heartfelt. Only those last two movements are immediately appealing; the rest, while well-wrought and purposeful, commands respect rather than affection.

Conversely, the 1921 Piano Quintet is recognizably the Hollywoodish Korngold of the movie scores, even if it obviously can't emulate the rich sounds of a full orchestra. In the broadly Romantic first movement, the theme-groups, while similar in style, are easily distinguishable, with shimmering textures and transitions. Gestures of aching, poignant lyricism set off some darker turns in the development, along with a few Straussian sidelong harmonic shifts. The chorale-like second movement, Adagio, gradually grows fuller and more impulsive.

The following movement, after opening, trenchant string unisons, is sprightly and cheerful; not consulting the track listing, I assumed this was a conventional scherzo in a four-movement piece. But this is, as we say Stateside, a "fake-out": it's actually the Finale, which builds up an impressive head of steam, leading to a definitive finish.

Excellent playing from the members of Spectrum Concerts Berlin, with dazzling articulations from pianist Eldar Nebolsin. The recording is fine.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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