This is an excellent celebration of the life and music of the composer of so many classic Warner Bros scores of the 1930s and ‘40s. There are excerpts from Warner films that Korngold scored, starting with the Mendelssohn arrangements he made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the film that drew him to Hollywood in the first place, to Deception (1946) [Curiously no mention is made of his work for Republic Studios in arranging Wagner’s music for their disastrous bio-pic, Magic Fire.] We see excerpts from: Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse, The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, King’s Row, The Constant Nymph, Between Two Worlds, Devotion, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Sea Wolf. Marco Polo classical film score conductor, William T. Stromberg and score reconstructor, John Morgan comment in this section about Korngold’s classic film scores; and, at one point, we see Korngold’s score for Escape Me Never open on a piano.
The Portrait section covers the life of Korngold taking us, as he would have experienced it, from the fantasy world of old Habsburg Vienna to the Warner Bros. dream factory in Hollywood. With comments from Korngold experts and those who knew him, and illustrated by many, many photographs – some familiar to readers of Brendan G. Carroll’s and Jessica Duchen’s biographies – and many more less familiar images, plus Korngold’s own home movie pictures, the portrait moves through the period of the early works – so incredibly assured and mature from a little boy barely in his teens – through his early operatic successes and his work for Viennese operetta to his career in Hollywood and finally to disillusion as his music was felt to be out of joint with the times after the end of World War II.
Biographer and President of the International Korngold Society, Brendan G. Carroll contributes many insights including the comment: "He is the only example of a composer prodigy I know who had a fully formed musical personality right from the start. As a little boy in his compositions, his was writing like an adult. Amazed, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Kreisler etc recognised that he was writing like they did. Korngold was also a magnificent pianist developing his prodigious skill after only a few lessons from a needy relative." Conductor Hugh Wolff comments: "His music is full of emotion. It’s rich melodic and expressive. As an orchestral conductor you stand in awe of his orchestral abilities from his very early works like the Schauspiel Overture (1911) onwards. They are amazingly sophisticated, elaborate and detailed. He had an excellent ear for colour and balance and original sounds."
There are abundant musical examples beginning with early works like The Snowman, the Dramatic Overture and the Piano Trio. There is music from the operas: Violanta, Die Tote Stadt, Das Wunder der Heliane, and Die Kathryn. From Violanta we hear the opening music set against dramatic wintry images of Venice and Brendan G. Carroll draws attention to the extraordinary unsettling atmosphere created by Korngold’s eerie "Violanta chord" spaced across the whole orchestra, arching four and a half octaves, a device that "could have been written by no other composer." Against equally atmospheric twilight autumnal pictures of Bruges we hear Paul’s Act II aria from Die Tote Stadt, as he wanders through Bruges to eventually linger in front of Marietta’s house pondering on his new love for her and his guilt at betraying the memory of his beloved deceased wife. Later from the same opera we hear something of the very popular Fritz’s ‘Pierrot Lied’. But, most poignantly, as we see portraits of Korngold and memorabilia of his life as the film’s portrait ends section ends, we hear Anne Sofie von Otter sing from Act I of Die Tote Stadt the beautiful ‘Marietta’s Lied.’ Also, most interestingly, we hear a sweetly nostalgic aria from Korngold’s last opera Die Kathryn as we see images of figures representing Korngold and his wife Luzi returning to a very different and unwelcoming Vienna after World War II.
The Concert section commences with Quirine Viersin’s spirited performance of Korngold’s brief 12-minute Cello Concerto cast in one movement and embracing an opening allegro, an adagio section and a closing fugato. It was developed from the film Deception a dark romantic triangle concerning a pianist (Bette Davis) caught between her once thought war-lost husband, a cellist (Paul Henreid) and erstwhile lover, a composer (the brilliant Claude Rains). The composer’s Cello Concerto plays an important part in the film. It is a brittle, hard edged modern-sounding work softened by a beautiful romantic yearning main theme. Pianist Alexander Frey’s contributions from the early Don Quixote and Seven Fairytale Pictures are particularly fine. His readings are beautifully shaped, sensitive and in the case of the Fairytale pieces – ‘Gnomes’ and the lovely ‘Epilogue’ – very evocative and very affecting. For his Violin Concerto, Korngold used material from his film scores for: Another Dawn and Juarez in the opening movement, Anthony Adverse for the middle movement, and for the finale, The Prince and the Pauper. Leonidas Kavakos gives a rather bland competent performance that too rarely touches the heart. This very romantic concerto needs more commitment in terms of fire and expression.
In all, this is a splendid record of the life and music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Unhesitatingly recommended to all his admirers.