Bartok and Korngold: Piano Quintets – Goldner String Quartet – Hyperion 

by | Jan 14, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BARTOK: Piano Quintet in C Major; KORNGOLD: Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15 – Piers Lane, piano/Goldner String Quartet – Hyperion CDA68290, 73:00 (1/3/from0) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Australian piano virtuoso Piers Lane (b. 1958) continues to explore new and exciting, unfamiliar repertory, here embracing with the talented Goldner Quartet the 1904 (rev. 1921) Piano Quintet in C Major (rec. 8-10 December 2018), a work much influenced by the Hungarian-gypsy style of Franz Liszt and the more combative elements that Bartok admired in Richard Strauss. A legacy from Schubert (especially in his F Minor Fantasie, Wanderer Fantasie, and Violin Fantasie) lies in the one-movement structure that, while evolving continuously, subdivide into the traditional four-movement pattern. The emotional contour of the opening Andante, however, conveys more of a Brahms influence,  contrasting C Major and F-sharp minor in a large canvas that uses melodies in later movements. Occasionally, the modal harmony ventures into the Phrygian regions we know from the second movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. While the Vivace (Scherzando) second movement in F-sharp minor continues the tritone motif that imparts to the first movement a restless character, the rhythmic agogics of the ¾ time signature have a way of varying the beats into the irregular arrangements we find in Bartok’s folk-based keyboard music, like Mikrokosmos.

The “real” Bartok emerges in the extended Adagio, where the tritone harmonic foundation finds a complement in the tuning down of the G strings by a semitone. The second degree of the scale bears the augmentation of the Hungarian scale made famous by Liszt, and we will hear that gypsy element even more strongly emphasized in the Finale.  Cembalom effects blend with the night-music sensibility of later Bartok to create an eerie, intimate sensibility. The Poco a poco piu vivace last movement proffers a spirited csardas whose energies and piano runs (and counterpoint) remind us of the Rhapsody, Op. 1.  Bits of Vienna find their way into the mix, likely in parody, especially by way of Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies.  Massive octave chords in unison progress to a mighty peroration in C Major that affirms that a musical personality of high order fashions itself before us, unabashed to confront the future with audacious elements from the past.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) only increases in general respect as time goes on: no longer does his name “merely” entail lush Hollywood scores for the likes of Errol Flynn. After the completion of his major opus, Die tote Stadt (c. 1920), Korngold embarked on a series of chamber music works, of which the Piano Quintet in E Major (1923) made a powerful impression, coming as had been the composer’s wont, after a dramatic stage work. Besides the “vocal” influence of Die tote Stadt, Korngold’s Abschiedlieder or “songs of farewell” supply materials for the series of variants marking the Adagio middle movement. Like Dvorak, Korngold’s intimate writing contains references to his romance with a young woman, Luise von Sonnenthal.

Akin to Bartok, Korngold holds the music of Richard Strauss in high esteem, and the opening E Major foray into sonata form of the Maessiges Zeintmass bears harmonic debts to Strauss, along with quotations from Die tote Stadt. The potent chords in the late development section echo the opera’s Prelude, Act III. The Adagio consists of nine variations on the first of the “farewell songs,” Sterbelied, some of which become harmonically audacious in the midst of symphonic textures.   String harmonics and a potent cello line (Julian Smiles) define the fifth variation. The piano at the coda finds itself surrounded by eerie slides and suspended harmonies, specifically a major ninth chord. Powerful, unison chords begin the Finale, then a violin cadenza ((Dene Olding) that soon yields to the mischievous quality of the movement, which basks in metric asymmetries and textural glissandos. Korngold exploits various effects for their own sake, including pizzicatos, stentorian chords, and swirls of trills and broken staccato figures. Extended canonic moments appear, only to yield to a momentary piano solo, then incursions by cello and violin. The tension between percussive effects and the violin’s bittersweet, angular lyrics keeps us on edge; and then, a new, driven gallop appears, this to take us ineluctably to an oddly compelling conclusion in pizzicati.  Throughout both quintets, Lane’s piano has kept pace with any number of quirky metrics and subtle keyboard effect,s all captured in piercing sonics by Record Producer Jeremy Hayes/

—Gary Lemco

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