December 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD
Piano Quintet in E Major. Suite Op. 23 (1930) Kathryn Brake (Piano); George Marsh (Violin); Claudia Chudacoff (violin); Nancy Thomas Weller (viola), Steven Honigberg (cello).   ALBANY TROY 348 [68:58]

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This enterprising album, which offers two contrasting chamber works from the young Korngold, may come as a surprise to those only familiar with the composer's famous film scores, or perhaps with his grand concert works, which in any case often bear marked similarities to his film music.

The Piano Quintet was begun shortly after Korngold's great success with his opera Die tote Stadt, and completed in 1921 when the composer was still in his early 20's. Dedicated to his friend, the sculptor Gustinus Ambrosi, the three movement work lasts, in this performance, just over half-an-hour; Korngold himself was the piano soloist for the Hamburg premiere in 1923. The opening movement is concentrated in its distilled lyricism, offering a density of invention quite different to the later, inevitably more directly melodic film music. One really startling moment comes when a passage of intense melancholy abruptly takes a detour through brief atonal piano writing and caustic strings. It lasts less than half-a-minute before tonality triumphs and the movement ends, but from Korngold it is shocking that it is exists at all. In the following 'Adagio' the piano pushes at the edges of tonality in a questing, urgent exploration towards a most affecting melody. This is music with a youthful uncertainty, wanting to resolve into absolutes, yet asking introspective, self-doubting questions along the way. When a 'big tune' finally arrives at '5:20' Korngold almost immediately strips it down to the essentials of a stark mournful line, before rising to a peak of angst. The material is derived from Korngold's own Songs of Farewell, most particularly the third song of the set, 'Moon, thou Riseth Again' and the music certainly contains the hallmarks of youthful emotional torment.

The 'Finale' opens with a bold statement by the violin, joined by confrontational block piano chords and leading to a characteristically Jewish violin melody which in turn develops into a spry rondo. A dazzling sequence of themes spin through rapid variations, before the work is tied together with a return opening melody.

The compactness of the material demands the fullest attention, as the young Korngold obviously had so much to say he almost risks spilling it out all at once. Listening to this music one almost wishes the composer had taken more time to develop his melodies, rather than rushing on headlong like a butterfly, turning first this way then that, always beguiling, but perhaps ultimately achieving less than a more direct route might have obtained with more economy. Less is more may well apply, though youth has always had more energy than time to spare.

The Suite, Opus .23 (for 2 violins, cello and piano: left-hand) dates from 1930, and in the nine years between the two works it is obvious that Korngold has matured into a composer of considerably more control and authority. Here the pacing is more measured, the use of piano against strings more carefully structure to achieve precise emotional effects. By saying one thing at once, Korngold makes sure we hear him clearly. The romantic melodies are stated with great clarity, each instrumental line evidently part of the overall structure such that the musical architecture is revealed in clean lines and strong design. In five movements, the work is almost a concentrated symphony, and could perhaps have been re-orchestrated into symphonic form had Korngold chosen to do so. Certainly the development is more 'symphonic' than in the Quintet, though the economy of instrumental forces has the advantage of allowing us to appreciate Korngold's musical invention without the distraction of his customary rich orchestration. Here, rather more so than in the earlier work, the film music aficionado will find pointers to the style of the great romantic melodramas Korngold scored in the following two decades.

The Suite was Korngold's second commission for the noted one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein - the first had been a piano concerto in 1923 - and was premiered by Wittgenstein Vienna in October 1930. Korngold runs the gamut from fugue to waltz, with controlled dissonance set against a slow movement based upon the composer's own beautiful 'Was du mir bist?' from the Opus 22 lied, and again a finale spinning variations from an opening rondo. This time the result is more appealing, for rather than demanding our attention with an onslaught of invention, Korngold's writing makes every phrase a pleasure.

Both pieces on this disc require playing of a high order, and the informal ensemble respond with virtuoso performances. The booklet (which also features some beautifully reproduced photographs of the composer) gives informative notes both about the music, and about the musicians, who although apparently not a permanently established group, all hail from the Washington D.C. area. Cellist Steven Honigberg is clearly the driving force behind the recording, for the booklet lists four other albums featuring his artistry, and he is also the producer of this current release. With engineer Ed Kelly he has achieved a very clear and unforced sound, with the instruments defined in a natural soundstage making following the interplay between the parts delightfully easy. The balance is good, and each instrument has a real sense of presence. The fact that it has been produced to the highest standards is further indicated by HDCD encoding, enabling those with the appropriate audiophile equipment to benefit from the best possible sound quality.

The Piano Quintet is full of youthful passion, while the Suite is certainly a stronger, more mature work. Taken together they present not only a less well known facet of a fine composer whose 'serious' work is only now coming to be known, but offer the opportunity to see the development over a decade of a composer approaching two rather different works for comparable forces. This is not a release to recommend to the hardcore film music buff, for apart from this not being film music, there is little here which sounds directly like Korngold's later soundtrack work. However, for the more adventurous film music fan, and for those interested in a range of classical as well as film music, this is a very interesting and rewarding album.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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