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Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Quintet in E, Op.15 (1921) [24:20]
Suite: Much Ado About Nothing, Op.11 (1918/1920) [10:11]
String Quartet No.2 in E flat, Op.26 (1933) [25:35]
Alasdair Beatson (piano)
Eusebius Quartet,
rec. St Paul’s School, London, 19-20 December 2018; The Menuhin School, Surrey, 14-15 November 2020

Over the past few years, the concert music of Erich Korngold has begun, bit by bit, to reassert its significance as a major part of that late flowering of European romanticism which was finally stifled by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. We no longer look on Korngold as a fine composer of movie scores (although he certainly was that), but as an important composer of large-scale orchestral and operatic works. His Symphony, his Sinfonietta and his Violin Concerto, as well as his most successful opera, Die Tote Stadt, have all now entered the repertory, and have been championed by some of the leading figures in the musical world. And the revival of interest goes further. In recent years recordings (and, increasingly, live performances) of his chamber works have been appearing. This latest gives us his Piano Quintet and the second of his three string quartets, along with the Suite from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
While Korngold’s music for Much Ado About Nothing (which goes under the German title Viel Lärmen um Nichts) is well known and, therefore, quite generously represented on disc, the version recorded here is slightly different from that most people would know. It is scored for string quartet – as opposed to chamber-sized orchestra – and, according to Brendan Carroll’s outstanding booklet notes, was only discovered in 2012 when it was given its first public performance. Korngold only set three of the four movements for string quartet, omitting the gorgeous “Intermezzo”, so for this recording the leader of the Eusebius Quartet, Beatrice Philips, commissioned Tom Poster to provide a new version. Poster is a pianist and, it seems, Philips did not request for a string quartet arrangement, so what we have here, inserted between movements of the Suite for string quartet, is a rich piece of piano writing with the strings giving out that luscious theme in turns. It is lovely, and played with great affection by the pianist on this recording, Alasdair Beatson, but one wonders how it might have sounded had Korngold tried turning it into a piece of string quartet writing (Carroll suggests he “did not get round to it”, but my suspicion is he realised that it simply would not work without the piano). As for the three movements Korngold did arrange for quartet, I have to admit I am not surprised it laid dormant all those years; this is music which does not really benefit from being pared back to quite such bare instrumental bones; the “March” in particular, finding it difficult to convey the idea of two drunken nightwatchmen when played with such immense clarity and precision as the Eusebius Quartet does here.

The Piano Quintet is a rich, lavishly written piece which disguises the thinness of its instrumental resources quite magically. With their excellent dynamic palette and wealth of tone, the Eusebius Quartet, superbly aided and abetted by Beatson, give off a powerful impression of something far grander than a mere five instruments. I particularly like their innate flexibility of movement and elasticity of tempi. The recording serves them well, giving the sound a pleasing robustness.

The String Quartet is very different in every respect. It has a sense of intimacy which shows the hallmark of an instinctive composer for the medium, and the Eusebius players respond with a superb sense of the music’s inner character and a sense of spontaneity which really brings Korngold’s music to life. What I find less satisfactory is the recording itself. While Much Ado About Nothing and the Piano Quintet were recorded in 2020, the Quartet was recorded two years earlier at a different location, and does not really achieve a satisfactory balance with the sound often uncomfortably forward. As performances, however, these are all very fine indeed, and only those listeners with unusual sensitivity for recorded quality are likely to feel a tiny tinge of disappointment.

Marc Rochester

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