The Korngold Symphony in F sharp (the composer didn't specify major or minor key in the title) has amassed two high-profile recordings over the years, under Franz Welser-Most (EMI) and Andre Previn (DG) - a nice outcome for a work that received three feeble European performances in the early Fifties and none at all in the U.S. until 1984. Korngold was the most pedigreed of Hollywood composers, an emigre form Hitler's austria who was considered a child prodigy to rival or even surpass, Mozart. Hollywood gave him a second life, but it ended his career as a serious composer. He returned to non-film composing after a severe heart attack in 1947, and although there was a premiere under Furtwangler, of all people, the remaining years before he died in 1957 were obscure.
Like most postwar listeners, I discovered Korngold through the one-man revival of his classic MGM scores under Charles Gerhardt, a record producer for RCA who had considerable podium skills. Excerpts from The Sea Hawk figured on Gerhardt's first thrilling lP of Korngold's music, and i must say that James DePreist's version is pallid and almost dawdling by comparison. But this augury isn't reliable. The main work, the Symphony in F sharp, is done very well, with real feeling and alertness to the score's lush beauty and haunting shadows.
In his polemical program notes, Brendan Carroll (Korngold's biographer and family friend) tries to argue that the symphony rose triumphantly from the "desert" of orchestral music after WW II, defying the dominance of Schoenberg and serialism. Exaggeration aside, the work is very appealing, especially here, because dePreist is not as dry as Welser-Most and more easy-going and modest than Previn. Ingenious as the music is, its idiom remains decidedly Hollywood, but with ambitions. That criticism damned Korngold's attempts at a late serious career as far as the "More gold, less corn" crowd was concerned. But late Romanticism now transcends the calendar, and the late dates of the Korngold Violin Cto. and Symphony hardly matter; they are both lovely and belong beautifully in our imaginary Vienna in the golden era between Johann and Richard Strauss.
Delos adds to the sweep of the music with CinemaScope sound, and the Oregon Sym., founded in 1896, plays very well for DePreist, who is credited with reviving the orchestra during his long tenure, from 1980 to 2003, as music director, stands as one of the rare African-American conductors of note. In Portland and also in Sweden he has carved a career and released a number of excellent recordings. This is a notable one, even if the big splash made by Previn and Welser-Most is replaced with music-making that is more natural and subdued.
P.s. 2013 - I now think that the Albrecht recording of the symphony on PentaTone surpasses this one for energy, orchestral execution, and recorded sound.