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Friday, June 26, 2009

Hit and Miss Korngold

Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1945) [23:43]
Overture to a Drama, Op. 4 (1911) [13:31]
Much Ado About Nothing –Concert Suite, Op. 11 (1918) [16:13]

Philippe Quint (violin)
Orquesta Sinf├│nica de Mineria
Carlos Miguel Prieto

Recorded at Sala Nezahualc├│yotl, Mexico City, August, 2007.

NAXOS 8.570791 [53:40]

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a Viennese boy wonder who was admired by Strauss and was expected to be the next great European Musical Genius when his early works appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. Alas, politics and the havoc wreaked upon the continent by Hitler and the Nazis changed the course of his life, eventually landing him in Hollywood and a respected career as a film composer. Now famous for having essentially invented the “swashbuckling” film score, it has taken a few decades for Korngold’s substantial output of concert music to make a comeback. Fortunately, interest in these works has revived and none is more popular than the tuneful Violin Concerto of 1945, inspired by Bronislav Hubermann, but given its first performance by Jascha Heifetz.

Like the string quartets of Ravel and Debussy, Korngold’s violin concerto is often paired on recordings with Samuel Barber’s equally lush concerto. We have the happy fortune here of hearing a couple of Korngold’s purely orchestral works. The concerto however is the centerpiece, and although it is given a satisfactory performance by Philippe Quint, he stands against some serious competition. Chock full of Hollywood movie themes, this is still a substantial work, and requires a great deal of thought on the part of the soloist to keep it from sounding merely showy. Quint’s technical prowess is adequate for the task, but the sound seems a bit thin to these ears, lacking depth of tone in the lower register, and coming off as a bit reedy in the upper. By the end, I was left with a feeling that although his performance was certainly professional, it did not particularly inspire me. Compare this reading to James Ehnes’ brilliant performance (CBC 5421) or the equally remarkable reading by Gil Shaham (DG 439886).

Inspired by Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the Overture to a Drama was the first work that the teenaged composer orchestrated without assistance. It was given its first performance by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under no less a luminary that Artur Nickisch. Although the influence of Strauss is obvious, particularly in the charming use of three-quarter time, there is much that is original and it is understandable that musicians of the day saw such great potential in the young composer. Carlos Miguel Prieto leads a taut performance, elegantly shaped and balanced. Special mention goes to the horn section of the Mineria orchestra for their potent yet never overpowering playing.

The incidental music to Much Ado about Nothing was composed for a 1920 production of the play in Vienna. Knowing that the orchestra’s musicians would not be available for the full run of the play, Korngold arranged the score for violin and piano, an adaptation that has won more favor then the original orchestral version. Marked by wonderfully clever orchestration, with deft use of the piano and the harmonium, Korngold makes extremely creative use of a modest yet diverse cadre of instruments. Although each of the movements is brief, there is much delightful music squeezed in, and Maestro Prieto gives us a perfectly paced performance, making this little suite the highlight of this all too brief disc!