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Korngold incidental 8573355
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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Much Ado About Nothing – complete incidental music Op.11 (1918) [47:54]
The Vampire – concert version by C Bauer and K. Simon (1922) [16:37]
Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor – Much Ado)
Ekkehard Abele (Narrator/Voice – The Vampire)
Holst-Sinfonietta and Chorus/Klaus Simon
rec. 19-21 March 2014 E-Werk, Freiburg, Germany
NAXOS 8.573355 [64:36]

This disc reaffirms – as if such proof were still necessary – just what a prodigious genius the young Erich Wolfgang Korngold was. The complete incidental music for Korngold’s score to Much Ado About Nothing runs to nearly fifty minutes of music brimming over with pointed musical characterisation, subtle scene-setting and gorgeous melody – all written before his twenty first birthday. I reviewed a similar complete presentation of this score back in 2013 (review) from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time this was the first such complete presentation, but for all the wonderful music I had a nagging doubt as to the style of the performance and also the use of a full orchestra. Subsequent research has proved that the original production was envisaged for single strings and single wind and brass (a 2nd horn excepted), plus some ‘luxury’ instruments in the form of a harp, piano and accordion plus two percussion players. That is the playing strength deployed on this new recording and the result is little short of revelatory. Important to say that this is not the first recording of the proper/original scoring. That honour goes to a Toccata Classics disc that got a “recording of the month” accolade from the late-lamented Ian Lace (review). I would urge all Korngold enthusiasts to at least sample the Toccata performance because it was made as part of a fully staged production conducted by John Mauceri. At first glance this student performance might seem to lack the finesse of a fully professional one but in fact it is rather wonderful with Mauceri finding exactly the right balance between bubbling humour and touching sentiment. The downside for some listeners will be that in line with the staged origin, quite often Shakespeare’s dialogue overlaps the music. Previously, the video of this performance was available online to view for free and it was a genuine delight to watch. At the point of writing this review I cannot find the video anymore.

So, if you want to enjoy the extraordinary deftness and imagination of Korngold’s scoring front and centre, this new disc is an excellent alternative. Perhaps Klaus Simon’s conducting lacks a little bit of verve and sparkle compared to Mauceri but the playing of his Holst-Sinfonietta is uniformly excellent and the engineering manages to find a really effective balance between all the disparate instruments. Time and again I marvelled at the genius of Korngold’s lushly economical scoring. Too often the epithet “great orchestrator” is used for composers who write for large and opulent ensembles. A truly great orchestrator is one who is able to conjure a wide range of instrumental colours and timbres from a relatively limited ensemble – which is exactly what Korngold achieves here. I find it fascinating how his signature instrumental combination of harp/piano/glockenspiel is so fully realised this early in his career. One little query – the orchestral list here has – as mentioned above – an accordion whereas the score of the orchestral suite and other performances use a harmonium I believe. To be honest this is a slight timbral difference but I am curious to know which Korngold envisaged in the original production. The great advantage this ‘chamber’ scoring has over the full orchestral version is how much more intimate and human scenes such as Mädchen im Brautgemach [track 12] or the glorious Act III Prelude – Gartenmusik [track 8] become. The latter with one of Korngold’s most delicious waltz inventions gently musing over cascading harp and keyboard figurations is so touching in its smaller scale conception. Yet at the same time Korngold can conjure some suitably impressive sequences such as the brief Kirchenszene [track 13]. As is the nature of incidental music there are some brief linking cues and a couple of repetitions but what is impressive is just how substantial and musically satisfying so much of this music is. The 5:47 Trauermusik is a genuinely powerful musical creation – again I love the way the accordion/harmonium colours the harmonic support of this movement with its ability to sustain a chord in a way that neither the harp or piano can. Throughout the Naxos production is very good indeed, in a slightly close and not glamorous recording, at allowing all the sophisticated detail of the scoring to register. The strings of the Holst-Sinfonietta do not make the richest or most lush sound but again this feels absolutely appropriate to the scale of this work. Cellist Camille Bloch plays the solos in the achingly poignant Intermezzo [track 9] and elsewhere with exactly the right degree of nostalgic regret. Indeed that particular cue contains one of Korngold’s most achingly beautiful melodic inventions.

Another interest for the Korngold aficionado is how in this score he is already displaying his extraordinary instinct for dramatic illustration. Of course, this skill would be the cornerstone of his years in Hollywood – and worth remembering it was for a Shakespeare film that he was initially lured there. His ability to find an apt musical expression/accompaniment for a scene or text was second to none and this score demonstrates that he had all the instinctive skills in place a decade before he went to America. I have always enjoyed Korngold’s score for this play ever since I first heard it in the full orchestral suite. But I have to say in this its original form and scale I find this performance to be revelatory. Not that I would want to be without Mauceri’s insightful and sparkling version as well – however, the presence of dialogue there diminishes its appeal for repeated listening.

A further attraction of this new disc for the Korngold completeist collector is the presence of the world premiere recording of his score to accompany Der Vampir oder Die Gejagten The Vampire or The Hunted). Whereas Much Ado About Nothing consists of solely instrumental cues – with the exception of the song Sigh no more ladies [track 7 – competently sung by tenor Hans Jörg Mammel] the style of Der Vampir is very different. Written just three years later this is a fascinating score in the almost expressionist way the music instantly illuminates and comments on the drama. The issue for the listener – especially the non-German speaking ones – is that the bulk of the music is underscoring dialogue. In this instance Cornelius Bauer (who also contributes the useful liner note) and conductor Klaus Simon have produced a concert version where a narrator explains the plot as well as performing a number of roles. Here Ekkehard Abele is the suitably dramatic narrator/voice. However, due to copyright issues the liner cannot reproduce any of the texts for the work. This is compounded by the fact that the liner briefly outlines the convoluted plot but gives no actual synopsis and no indication of which track/cue fits what part of the plot. Furthermore, it would appear that some of Korngold’s music has been lost. The score as it currently exists ends with an extended dream sequence but there are two more acts in the original play which include indications of further music cues. So what we have here is an attenuated arrangement of an incomplete score in an [potentially] unfamiliar language.

None of which sounds too enticing but this is where Korngold’s especial genius shines through. The instrumentation of Der Vampir is even smaller than Much Ado. Here he uses just flute, violin, cello, harp, piano and percussion as well as a Greek-style spoken chorus for the aforementioned dream-sequence. None of the music cues are anything like as extensive or self-contained either but goodness me they are effective. The 1922 composition foreshadows many of the scores that were written in Weimar Germany in the following decade. Of course Korngold being Korngold cannot resist introducing a good tune or a seductive waltz or in track 23 a nonchalant fox-trot. The playing here is every bit as skilled and apt as in the main work but this will remain very much an appendix to the main body of Korngold’s work.

The main value of this disc is the complete recording of Much Ado About Nothing which I enjoyed immensely. I would still recommend the Mauceri performance especially if it can be seen and not just heard. Der Vampir is valuable as a first recording and in the way it illustrates the range of Korngold’s skill especially at such a young age. The only real mystery is why such a valuable recording has sat in the Naxos vaults for nearly eight years.

Nick Barnard

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