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ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD (1897-1957) String Sextet (1915)  String Quartet No 3 (1945)   Flesch Quartet plus others ASV CD DCA 1062 [59:27]



A pleasure to be reviewing this disc after my earlier review of the companion disc of quartets 1 and 2 (CD DCA 1035). The two works come from opposite ends of the wunderkind's career.

The sextet is the work of a seventeen year old already enjoying celebrity and, no doubt, envy. The work is of rosy serenity. Its preoccupation is with beauty (not a bad choice really!). In this performance and recording I felt a certain rich weightiness to the texture. This is agreeable but a greater sense of lift and feather-down would have been welcome. The work strikes me as offering parallels with Zemlinsky and the moonlit tunefulness of early Schoenberg rather than, say, the Mendelssohn Octet or even Brahms whose sextets are quoted as a reference in the admirable notes by Brendan Carroll (who else?). The music's vitality is well worth encountering although be prepared for some longueurs along the way.

The third quartet is a different proposition. Written in the USA and dedicated to Bruno Walter it is a work of lucid tunefulness; clean and without the weighed-down complexity of the sextet. Mr Carroll points out that this was the first of his scores to reuse material from the film scores: Between Two Worlds; The Sea Wolf (a cracking film though not a patch on Jack London's original novel) and Devotion (recently recorded complete by Marco Polo) .

Just an aside. The dedication to Bruno Walter reminds me that there is perhaps a major study (and probably several novels) to be written linking the lives of so many European ex-pats who, fleeing oppression, found their way to the States. The list is long: Weill, Korngold, Schoenberg, Eisler, Toch, Karl Weigl (soon to be the subject of a series of recordings I seem to remember - he wrote a bewitching violin concerto pioneered by Sidney Harth) and so on.

ASV's drenched-colour house-style for booklet design remains intact. Playing time just short of an hour. Keep up the excellent work ASV. Your discs are invariably of high quality: both collectable and enjoyable as a musical experience.


Rob Barnett

Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD String Quartets Nos 1 (1924) and 2 (1934)

Flesch Quartet ASV CD DCA 1035 [57:31]




Rather like Lyrita, Hyperion and Chandos, ASV have established a house style for repertoire and booklet design. Their repertoire choice is quirkily swashbuckling. They are a label of exploration and adventure. ASV's choice of the Flesch Quartet is well and truly vindicated here as previously it was for the Rawsthorne string quartets. Their Viennese style of performance is accurately judged and balanced.

There is nothing of Hollywood in these two quartets, the second of which dates from just the year before he was invited to the USA. On first hearing the first quartet hardly registered with me at all. Later hearings reveal a work of half-lights and gentle melancholy. He had just finished Die Tote Stadt and at the age of 23 was enjoying a maturity which for most composers comes twenty years later. The work was premiered on 8th  January 1924. The work had been two years in the writing. The world it evokes has much inwardness and a certain urbanity which I associate with turn of the century Vienna. It comes over as a sensually nostalgic work which is only a shading away from the chamber music of Herbert Howells (try the 1916 piano quartet and the 1923 string quartet). The quiet and sometimes skittish delight of Korngold's music surely reflects his love for Luzi whom he was to wed in Vienna on 30th April 1924. The last movement rather outstays its welcome. In Gramophone (Jan 1998) the reviewer of the Franz Schubert Quartet playing this work, Nimbus (NI5506), commented that the last movement had pre-echoes of the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood. In any event this is a strong work which encourages you to return.

The second quartet (especially the first movement) reminds me of John Foulds' Quartetto Intimo (on Pearl). It has some of that headlong tumbling energy and unbounded lyricism. Are the first movement's fanfare evocations deliberately echoing Beethoven's fifth I wonder. The second movement Intermezzo takes us on a stroll with the charming and unclouded Erich through the leafy Viennese streets. Everything is lovingly etched by the quartet. Perhaps this winning movement was the segment of the quartet which the Flesch performed in BBC's National Lottery Live programme in September 1997! If you enjoy the tuneful Bax String Quartet No.1 you are bound to like this as well. The following 9'02" Lento takes us back into the pastel, shadow and half-light world of emotion. The final waltz movement skips back to the world of the Intermezzo. It is difficult to believe that this work, premiered in Vienna on 16th March 1934, disappeared for years and had to wait until 1997 for its UK premiere. Presumably it was performed during Korngold's Hollywood years?

This is the first of two discs which will set out all three Korngold string quartets. The second disc (yet to be issued) will also offer the String Sextet. There was a 1977 RCA recording of quartets 1 and 3 (Chilingirian) and of No. 2 in a mixed Vox Box from the New World Quartet. I heard the Chilingirian a long time ago and recall fine performances and a dismissive review in Gramophone. The long-deleted Bay Cities disc of the second quartet (BCD1014) has a glowingly warm and husky performance which by a couple of degrees outpoints the Flesch in its gripping immediacy. There may be other recordings but I do not know of them . In any event here is an accessible and inspired CD of the first two and a strong pair of performances satisfying in themselves and whetting anticipation for the next disc. Perhaps the Flesch quartet will have a go at Bax's Third String Quartet a 40 minute work still awaiting its CD premiere?

On a personal note it is good to see violist Michael Ponder's name in the credits as producer. His viola playing no doubt gives him a sensitivity to the recording of string music which comes over very well in this disc. He has done some sterling work for various companies. His Klami collection on Naxos is impressively recorded.

Recommended then but not so much for the fan of full-blooded film music. If you enjoy chamber music you will relish these recordings and should snap them up without delay. Korngold completists will already be on the way to the shops!

Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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