Classical CD Reviews

KORNGOLD: Much Ado About Nothing (complete incidental music) – U. of North Carolina School of the Arts Drama Soloists and Sym. Orch./ John Mauceri – Toccata Classics

Even if not perfect, this is an important and entertaining performance molded by veteran man of the theater John Mauceri.

Published on October 8, 2013

KORNGOLD: Much Ado About Nothing, Op. 11 (complete incidental music) – U. of North Carolina School of the Arts Drama Soloists and Sym. Orch./ John Mauceri – Toccata Classics TOCC 0160 [Distr. by Naxos], 69:05 ***1/2:

Maybe it’s not as remarkably precocious a feat as Mendelssohn pulled off with his Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the music that 21-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold provided for a production of Much Ado about Nothing is a feat nonetheless. A great success at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the production went on to the storied Burgtheater, where Mozart and Beethoven got a first hearing, and helped establish Korngold as a modern Wunderkind. Incidental music being what it is—composed of mere scraps of music designed to bridge between scenes or provide background to the dialogue—Korngold later extracted a suite of five of the five pieces most likely to make an impact on their own. The result is one of his most charming and popular works. It’s also the only way Korngold’s Much Ado music has been heard for many years.

Trying to reproduce what Vienna audiences experienced in 1920 was apparently something of a chore since the music had never been published in its entirety and cues had to be taken from archival material, namely “colour photocopies of the original orchestral materials used in Vienna, along with the annotated conductor’s score. . .” supplied by the Austrian National Library. Conductor John Mauceri further explains, “The cues from Shakespeare’s text found in this archival material, along with indications of repeats and cuts, made the editing job both fascinating and complex, since the parts were later used for other productions. . .  A careful examination of these materials and information from Korngold’s own edited published score of the ‘complete’ edition as well as the suite helped inform our decision for a performing edition.”

Apparently, however, what could have required the most exhausting detective work, placing the music in the context of Shakespeare’s words, was aided by the inclusion of the text in the conductor’s score and in some of the individual instrumental parts. In any event, whatever difficulties beset this project, the resulting performance offers up a seamless meshing of music and text and suggests how sophisticated Korngold’s theater sense was so early in his career. (Then again, Korngold had already written the remarkably accomplished opera Violanta at the ripe old age of seventeen.)

For those interested in how Korngold’s music works with the Shakespeare text, the notes to the recording supply a very detailed synopsis of the action and dialogue where they intersect with the music. Shakespeareans will be fascinated by all this. Others will just savor the music itself and, maybe less so, the snippets of dialogue from the play. I’m familiar with Korngold’s suite based on the incidental music; I was not at all surprised to find that a lot more good music lurks in the score. This includes the atmospheric Gartenmusik (“Garden Music”) and the Mahler-like Trauermusik that accompanies the “funeral” of the slandered Hero, whose death has been faked until her name can be cleared.

One important feature of this project is the attempt to recreate the sound of the original production. Korngold gave his suite the full Straussian orchestral treatment, but the theater performances relied on a pit orchestra featuring string quartet, single winds (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and trombone), harp, piano, harmonium, and percussion. This gives the music a fresh, “wind-heavy” emphasis that, whether Korngold was thinking about it or not, recalls the prominent use of winds in Shakespeare’s theater. After all, the sound of oboes, cornets, and trumpets would carry well in an open-air theater.

As a bonus, the recording offers five of the pieces that accompany dialogue in the original but in this case shorn of the words. The inclusion actually helps you appreciate all the more Korngold’s skillful integration of music with the text.

The performance by students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is certainly a committed one. The musicians show great sympathy for the emotions on display in a drama that swings from supposed catastrophe to happy ending—with the warring love between Beatrice and Benedick, plus the antics of the comic constabulary led by Dogberry, supplying their share of merriment to the mix. The playing by the student orchestra is a little rough around the edges, and that’s underscored by the exposed one-to-a-part writing. Also, while the drama students are firm in delivery and well-schooled in their Shakespearean diction, you’re immediately aware that these are not the voices of seasoned professionals. Does that matter? A more polished performance would have been preferable but might not have delivered the words and music with the same sense of enthusiasm and discovery. Conductor John Mauceri, a veteran of Broadway and of the opera house, has a lot to do with that, I think. He understands how to pull words and music together into a seamless and compelling whole.

The sound, from the Scoring Stage of the School of Filmmaking, is a bit dry and analytical for my taste. I wish the recording had been made in a theater instead. Still, this is an important, one-of-a-kind project, and we can be happy for this chance to hear all of Korngold’s tuneful late-Romantic score.

—Lee Passarella

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