Classical CD Reviews

“KORNGOLD: Werke für Violine & Klavier” = Schneemann; Caprice Fantastique; Marietta’s Lied; Mädchen im Brautgemach; Holzapfel und Schlehwein; Gartenszene; Mummenschanz; Tanzlied des Pierrot; String Sextet – Daniel Gaede, v./ Xuesu Liu, p./ Philharmonic String Sextet Berlin – Phil. Harmonie

Korngold is not one of my favorites, but his String Sextet is. It receives an atmospheric performance here and is joined by some beautifully played salon music from the young composer.

Published on January 28, 2013

“KORNGOLD: Werke für Violine & Klavier” = Schneemann; Caprice Fantastique; Marietta’s Lied; Mädchen im Brautgemach; Holzapfel und Schlehwein; Gartenszene; Mummenschanz; Tanzlied des Pierrot; String Sextet – Daniel Gaede, v./ Xuesu Liu, p./ Philharmonic String Sextet Berlin – Phil. Harmonie

“ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD: Werke für Violine & Klavier” = Schneemann; Caprice Fantastique; Marietta’s Lied; Mädchen im Brautgemach; Holzapfel und Schlehwein; Gartenszene; Mummenschanz; Tanzlied des Pierrot; String Sextet in D Major, Op. 10 – Daniel Gaede, v./ Xuesu Liu, p./ Philharmonic String Sextet Berlin – Phil. Harmonie PHIL 06013, 71:34 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I was reading a centennial tribute to Benjamin Britten in the BBC Music Magazine and ran across a statement about Britten’s precociousness. The author noted it wasn’t of the order of that manifested by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Korngold.  Korngold? Of course, the other two composers are always mentioned in terms of early artistic achievement; Erich Korngold not so often. But consider the outstanding String Sextet of Korngold’s seventeenth year: it may not rank with the Mendelssohn Octet—also the product of a seventeen-year-old—but it’s a remarkable musical statement for one so young.

I hate the arrogance of folks who write things like “As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of so-and-so,” but the truth is I’ve stated before that Korngold is not meine Tasse Tee, yet I seem destined to be assigned to review new recordings of his works, either as penance or as a necessary part of my musical education. Supposing that the latter might be the case, I took a crash course in early Korngold, listening to his Sinfonietta, Op. 5 (written at age fourteen) plus the Straussian tone poem Sursum Corda, Op. 13, and his most celebrated opera, Die tote Stadt, both written when Korngold was a mere twenty-two. No, Korngold does not match the emotional depth displayed in the Octet or Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture (or in the seventeen-year-old Mozart’s first vocal masterpiece, Exultate, jubilate). However, in terms of an inherent understanding of musical form and style, as well as a breathtaking talent for instrumentation, Korngold is a wonder.

But that very lack of emotional depth and his entrenched conservatism, which made him constitutionally unable to embrace post-war (First War) musical trends, molded his later career as celebrated film composer and, in the realm of serious composition, as a recycler of his populist work for Hollywood. The products of these last years, such as the Symphony and the Violin Concerto, have gotten a second lease on life fairly recently, but that doesn’t, to my mind, make them anything like the equal of Korngold’s fine early music. (I’m with critic Irving Kolodin, who famously summed up the now-popular Violin Concerto as “more corn than gold.”)

Even as a young composer, Korngold had enough hits to successfully recycle himself, and the violin-and-piano works on the current program are the result. The pieces come from a variety of sources: the ballet Der Schneemann (from the composer’s eleventh year); the piano score Fairy Tale Pictures, Die tote Stadt; and best of all, a brief suite of pieces from Korngold’s incidental music to Much Ado about Nothing. The spiky, syncopated Holzapfel und Schlehwein and jaunty Mummenschanz from that score are two of the young composer’s best inspirations; they sound just as snappy here as in their orchestral garb. The other settings are mostly high-grade salon music, offering grace and schmaltz in equal measure. They’re beautifully and sensitively played by the team of Daniel Gaede and Xuesu Liu, who obviously believe in this music.

But it’s the excellent performance of the Sextet that I’ll return to. The members of Phiulharmonisches Streichsextett Berlin, drawn from musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, play like true Viennese, which I of course mean as a compliment. If you don’t know this music, you certainly should, with its subtle echoes of Verklërte Nacht and what seem like pre-echoes of Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The first two movements make a perfect pair, the first luminous, the second, nocturnal and rather sad. The notes to the recording, which include a fine appreciation of the Intermezzo movement with its sections that alternate Viennese waltz and “earthy peasant dance,” hit on something when they say that “the end of the movement is a wistfully smiling gesture of farewell, that even Richard Strauss hardly could have surpassed.” Though this is music by a very young man, there is something sadly valedictory about it; the musical world that Korngold would continue to celebrate was fast receding into the past.

The bottom line, then: lovely performances, mostly lovely music, an elegant studio recording from Berlin. Recommended!

—Lee Passarella




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