“Exile – Piano Music by Composers with Roots in Two Continents” = KORNGOLD: Vier Walzer für Klavier; ERICH ZEISL: 8 Klavierstücke: “November”; ERNST TOCH: Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 11; Profile No. 3, Op. 68; Der Jongleur, Burleske, Op. 31 No. 3; SCHOENBERG: Sechs kleine Stücke, Op. 19; MARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Cielo di settembre, Op. 1; I Naviganti; Fandango – Eric Le Van, piano – Music & Arts CD-1271 [Distr. by Naxos], 68:18 ****:

The cover photograph tells the bright half of the story behind this album. It shows Arnold Schoenberg in business suit and tie together with his photogenic young family, the kids all in their summer whites, more appropriate attire for sunny Southern California. The dark half of the story is the self-exile that saved the composers represented on this disc from the ravages of the Holocaust. The difficulties in extricating themselves from the coming onslaught and establishing a new life in alien surroundings (and Los Angeles still seems alien to a lot of Americans) is perhaps best reflected in the eight piano pieces by Viennese composer Erich Zeisl (1905–1959), collected under the title November. Written in the dark days just before Zeisl’s emigration in 1938, they have the stark coloration and austerity of a day in late autumn. The last piece in the series, Sieg des Winters (“The Victory of Winter”) is marked “Heroic,” but it’s a stoic, suffering kind of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. There’s an air of nostalgia in November as well, as if the work bids farewell to a culture that the composer knew and loved.

Like Korngold, Zeisl wrote for the movies during his American years, penning music for such classics as Lassie, Come Home and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Unlike Korngold, he’s still awaiting rediscovery as the composer of “serious” music. He seems to have been far less content than Korngold during his Hollywood days, resenting his work and feeling undervalued as a composer.

While Korngold has been getting his due and then some in recent years, with many recordings of his operas and instrumental works, his piano music has gone largely unrecorded, so it’s good to have his Walzer (1911) on disc. They’re actually a set of character studies of four of Korngold’s young Viennese friends, all of them girls. The miniatures range from languid to peppy, subjecting the classic dance form to some sophisticated harmonic treatment: a late-Romantic transformation of the waltz that takes us well beyond Strauss (either Johann or Richard).

Odd men out for different reasons are Arnold Schoenberg and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the former because he’s the only composer represented by what could be called avant-garde music, the latter because he’s the only composer who hailed from somewhere (Italy) other than Austria. From Castelnuovo-Tedesco, another prolific composer of film scores, we have a piece of juvenilia, September Sky, written when he was a mere fifteen. It’s an atmospheric little work, dreamy in the manner of some of Debussy’s Preludes, and not much has changed in his The Seafarers, Op. 13, from more than a decade later (1919). Fandango is part of a collection called Greeting Cards (1954) written in tribute to his American friends. It’s appropriately dedicated to Ámparo Iturbi, pianist sister of the better-known José Iturbi. Fandango tells us that this composer’s musical language remained tonal, firmly rooted in the traditions of the early twentieth century.

Though he’s known as an avant-gardist himself, Ernest Toch is represented on this disc by music that stretches earlier traditions only a bit. In fact, the Scherzo is a post-Brahmsian work that sounds very Brahmsian indeed, something the old gent himself might have produced if his piano Scherzo, Op. 4, had been written at the end of his career rather than at the beginning.

After a period of adjustment, Schoenberg probably became the most settled, and respected among the émigrés represented here, though ironically he’s the only one who failed to make his mark in Hollywood. He’s represented by six pieces that bridge the gulf between tonality and atonality and are, in comparison to his later serial compositions at least, easy listening. They’re expressive without the superheated emotions of Schoenberg’s Expressionist works of the same period (1911).

So for the most part, this collection is tonal, conservative, tending toward the neo-Romantic, a style to which Eric Le Van responds with a good bit of sympathy. The performances seem fully idiomatic, whether in the Brahmsian Toch, the Debussian Castelnuovo-Tedesco—or the Schoenbergian Schoenberg. In short, this is an attractive and attractively played program captured in truly fine sound at the studios of Bavarian Radio in Munich. As a plus, the notes to the recording, some of them written by Le Van himself, are a treasure trove of information about the composers and their lives in America, together with fascinating black-and-white photos from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

—Lee Passarella