Here is a big Late Romantic indulgence - some five hours of piano music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, aptly described by his biographer, Brendan G. Carroll, as the 'Last Prodigy.' Much of this music was composed when Korngold was still in his teens and many years before he reached Hollywood and those Warner Bros. scores; and many of the works show their Viennese origins; firmly rooted in 19th century romantic traditions, waltzes predominant.
In five hours' music, covering Korngold's output in this form, inspiration quite clearly is bound to be uneven but the standard is extraordinarily high especially considering the age of the composer when the music was set down. As Carroll says, "His keyboard style was highly personal and fully formed from the start, yet he seems to have had hardly any instruction on the instrument. Apart from a few lessons when he was five years old (not from an eminent teacher, but a needy relative) he seems to have been entirely self-taught.
CD1 begins with the Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor composed in 1908/09 when Erich was only eleven years old. It is an extraordinarily mature work for one so young. The opening movement marked …con passione, is masterful and heroic in the grand Late Romantic tradition. It has a big open sound and the grandeur of its opening pages suggests piano concerto writing. Dramatic dissonance contrasts with lyrical piquancy. Korngold has fun with his frivolous wayward scherzo with a central dreamy waltz that is constantly interrupted by quirky figures. The finale of this three-movement work is a remarkably assured passacaglia on a theme by his composition teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky. It impressed Mahler.
Don Quixote - Six Character Pieces after Cervantes was also composed in 1909 and it gave Korngold the opportunity of showing off his precocity in character painting. 'Don Quixote's Dreams of heroic deeds' are heroically ambitious but hollow; Korngold brings out all Cervantes' misguided knight's melancholic irony. The braying of the animal and the ponderous posture of the squire are vividly caught in 'Sancho Panza on his grey donkey' and Quixote's dream of romance is effectively captured in the tender 'Dulcinea of Toboso.'
A forty-three minute suite of music from Korngold's ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann (The Snowman) completes the first CD. Der Schneemann was Korngiold's first work for the stage and it was produced at the Vienna Opera on October 4th 1910 by 'Imperial Command of Emperor Franz Josef'. It was an immediate hit. This piano reduction from the orchestral score begins with an 'Introduction' which sets the icy wintry scene (with brief impressionistic touches) and introduces a captivating melody. The music has an enchantment that is immediately appealing and is full of childhood enthusiasm and innocence. There follows a seventeen-minute reduction of the music for 'First scene'. Much of it enchants, it has a warm glow, it is frolicsome and sentimentally nostalgic yet it tends to become rather tediously repetitive; inspiration, and therefore attention, flags. The brief 'Entr'acte' reprises material from 'First Scene' but states it more emphatically with some passion; and acts as a bridge to 'Scene Two' that is eighteen minutes of charming, often gentle dreamy music that again shows some influence of Debussy.
CD2 opens with Korngold's Sonata No. 2, composed in 1910 it begins heroically (and rather sternly by Jones) before a lyrical subject is introduced. The first movement develops through moods of quiet rippling introspection, of regret, and defiance. In the scherzo, a wild unruly waltz contrasts with another waltz, this time dreamy. The slow movement marked Largo, con dolore is mysterious and seemingly unfocussed. The finale in contrast is all smiles; an amiable rondo that passes through a number of interesting modulations and harmonic devices, but the general mood is sunny with occasional nostalgic autumnal tints.
Of the Seven fairy tale pictures, from 1910, 'The enchanted princess' has material that anticipates Korngold's Robin Hood film score, 'The Goblins' is a witty quicksilver evocation with a lovely central melody, and both 'The brave little tailor' and 'The fairy tale's epilogue' have material that haunts.
Korngold's father Julius was a feared Viennese music critic. As a parent he was very autocratic and sought to suppress some of Erich's early works. Amongst these was the Four little happy waltzes (1911) named after four of the composer's little girl friends (Julius thought them too much of an unwelcome distraction!). Consequently they lay forgotten for eighty years. The opening number, 'Gretl', is a rather conventional Viennese waltz but with a thoughtful middle section, but 'Gisi' is a little gem, subdued at first but rippling out to haunting beauty. 'Margit' is dreamy and a little skittish; while pretty 'Mitzi' tends to be a rather proud and haughty.
CD2 ends with Four Little caricatures for children that are very brief (a minute or less). They are witty take-offs of the styles of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith; and What the woods told me , three little evocative pieces entitled 'The awakening of the birds in the morning', 'The love-sick hunting boy' and 'The Imps' that amusingly lampoons 'Tales of the Vienna Woods'.
CD3 opens with a piano reduction of the Act III Intermezzo from Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane an opera about a dictatorship from which all love has been banished. A handsome young stranger appears who is condemned to death for preaching joy and love to the people. The dictator's wife falls for him and is likewise condemned. The music suggests the crushing regime and a passionate pleading for love and sympathy.
Korngold composed his Piano Trio in D major in 1910. Again, it is an amazingly assured work for one so young. In this version for piano four hands, Martin Jones is joined by Richard McMahon. They rejoice in the opening movement's flowing romantic lyricism that points towards the operas (in fact the puckish, mischievous Scherzo anticipates, in its beguiling Trio section, a lovely phrase that Korngld would use in Der Ring des Polykrates) and to the film music. The Larghetto meditates yearningly while the Finale is playful again with familiar Viennese patterns.
A potpourri from the opera Der Ring des Polykrates (1913) is light confection in keeping with comic romantic complications of two couples and a desire to test the steadfastness and the inevitability of true love. This is a transcription by an L. Ruffin and as Brendan Carroll says it is rather thin, but I think it communicates the lovely melodies cleanly and directly. Martin Jones revels in the numbers from As You Like It. The 'Girl in the Bridal Chamber' is surely one of Korngold's loveliest creations and the grotesque march for the drunken night watchmen is great fun while the concluding Hornpipe is very merry and a rattling good tune.
The 'Schach Brugge!' is the Act II harlequinade in Die Tote Stadt that cumulates in the haunting 'Pierrot Lied'. CD3 is rounded off by Geschichten von Strauss - an affectionate and clever fantasy/pastiche of the Strauss family's waltzes.
The more mature Sonata No. 3 composed in 1931 at the beginning of the first of Korngold's 'Hollywood' decades, opens CD3. Beginning with an imperious, muscular Allegro, it's second movement is a somewhat mysterious Andante religioso that suddenly has a repeated phrase, counterpointing a solemn tread, that at first resembles the cry of a cuckoo (was Korngold the joker's voice in evidence here?) before the material develops a bell-like evocation. The delightful third movement has a memorable tune originally composed for the first birthday of his son George (who was to become a recording producer and an ardent champion of his father's music). The final Rondo is full of good humour.
From Der Schneemann come 'Four Easy Pieces', making up a candy box of very feminine, prettily decorated: 'Waltzer', 'Entr'acte', 'Serenade' and 'Pierrot and Colombine: Valse lente'.
Rebay's arrangement of Korngold's Schauspiel Overture captures all the bravado of the orchestral original while his arrangement for piano four hands (again with Richard McMahon joining Martin Jones) of Die tote Stadt has pellucidly romantic renditions of 'Mariettaslied' and 'Pierrot's Tanzlied'.
Martin Jones performs these perfumed works most sympathetically. He seems to steer a middle course between the slow tempi of Alexander Frey on Koch 3-7427-2 HI) and the fast of Schafer on Calig CAL 50995) and Prunyi (Marco Polo 8.223384).
Clearly the most successful works are those written specifically for the piano, the transcriptions obviously loose much when reduced from their rich orchestral dress. But for Korngold completists, this is an essential survey and I feel sure they will derive much pleasure dipping into these four CDs.