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- Published on Amazon.com
I hope, with these paragraphs, that I can convince readers to consider listening to this Korngold recording, despite the comments of the editorial reviewer above. Needless to say, I find the editorial review to be unfairly negative, in fact very much so.
Korngold was a child prodigy. (It is an interesting coincidence that his middle name was the same as that greatest of all child prodigies, Mozart.) Born just before the turn of the previous century (1897), he was steeped in the cultural milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna, in which his father, Julius Korngold, was an influential music critic (in fact, one of the few who championed Gustav Mahler, both as composer and as Vienna Court Opera director, at a time when the virulently anti-Semitic Vienna press was having none of Mahler). So it was Mahler to whom Julius Korngold turned, when Erich Wolfgang was ten years old, for guidance as to his son's musical education, and it was Mahler who directed him to Alexander von Zemlinsky for that education.
Korngold achieved his first great success with his opera "Die tote Stadt" ("The Dead City") in 1920. While this opera, with a libretto based on a rather supernatural fable, was to fall out of favor, thanks to attention paid to the much less lush expressionist works that characterized the Second Viennese School, it is full of beautiful music, much in the vein of Richard Strauss. And one song from "Die tote Stadt" has remained - and will continue to remain - in the repertoire of lieder singers, because of its ineffable beauty: "Mariettas Lied" ("Marietta's Song"). Here, Barbara Hendricks, with the able assistance of Welser-Möst and the Philadelphia Orcestra, performs it wonderfully, as well she does for four of the lesser-known Korngold lieder, the "Six Simple Songs," originally written when Korngold was barely a teenager (but scored for orchestra a decade later). At least a few of these youthful songs remind me of Mahler's "Wunderhorn" songs in content, style and temperament, although the orchestration is more Straussian than Mahlerian. They are - simply - good.
With the Anschluss of Austria by Germany in 1938, Korngold - like so many of his contemporaries - emigrated permanently to the U.S., and to the film community in Los Angeles (where he had already been "commuting" for a few years, writing film scores), to settle in to a second career as a studio composer. Many of the blockbusters of the time had Korngold scores: Anthony Adverse, King's Row, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood, to name just a few. His style in this composing was to have its eventual effect on a later composer who made an even bigger name for himself in the genre. But I'm getting just a little ahead of myself here.
The major work on this CD, Korngold's Symphony in F sharp, was a "late in life" composition written in the early '50's and dedicated to the memory of FDR. While it has no obvious program, it is clearly heroic without being bombastic. Fully "tonal" (and, some would say, anachronistically so at a time when "Stravinsky was king"), it is very accessible in a post-Straussian sense. While harmonically somewhat more advanced (there is some question as to whether the "F sharp" should be "F sharp Major" or "F sharp Minor"), anyone comfortable with Mahler, Strauss, and/or Zemlinsky will have no problem with this underrated and underperformed work, which I consider sadly overlooked. The third-movement Adagio, as just one instance, is more than a minor masterpiece. While clearly Viennese, it is not at all what I had expected (i.e., a poor imitation of a Mahler Adagio). As far-fetched as this might sound, I was at first reminded of Sergei Rachmaninoff's symphonies. Only better. Much better. As melodically engaging and harmonically lush as a Rachmaninoff work, but with better attention to the details of transparent orchestration and thematic continuity without rambling interminably. And the brilliant Finale puts the lie to the idea that "late-in-life" works should be contemplative. As well, it pulls in a few of the major themes from the earlier movements with excellent effect.
This symphony is expertly constructed, brimming with both craftsmanship and beautiful themes, and is simply terrific. Thankfully, Welser-Möst (and a few others) have addressed an egregious oversight by committing it to disc. Getting back to my opening paragraph, I don't find this performance "unimaginative" or "plodding," nor do I find the recorded sound "thuddy" and "dry." Far from it; having played this CD on several systems, both at home and elsewhere, I find the performance to be both exciting where it needs to be and finely-wrought throughout, and the sound satisfactorily clear and full. So the editorial reviewer and I have differing opinions on these aspects. Use your judgement. And, if you trust me, then try to track down this recording.
As for that "later composer who made an even bigger name for himself in the genre," you may want to pay close attention to the opening of the Scherzo for this 1951-1952 work. A new theme enters the Scherzo after the introduction, at the 1'36" mark in this Welser-Möst performance. It might remind you of a score for a 1977 blockbuster film. Retrospectively, of course.