KORNGOLD: Piano Quintet in E Major; Sextet – Jennifer Stumm, viola/ Bartholomew La Follette, cello/ Kathryn Stott, p./ Doric String Q. – Chandos

by | Mar 27, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

KORNGOLD: Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15; Sextet in D Major, Op. 10 – Jennifer Stumm, viola/ Bartholomew La Follette, cello/ Kathryn Stott, piano/ Doric String Quartet – Chandos CHAN 10707, 66:58 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded at the Britten Studio, Hoffmann Building, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England, 6-8 July 2011, this fine disc offers us two vibrant works by Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy and fine operatic composer who became internationally famous for his Hollywood film scores. After having completed work on his 1920 opera Die tote Stadt, Korngold turned to chamber music, specifically to the Abschiedslieder song cycle, Op. 14, the first String Quartet, Op. 16, and the Quintet for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 15 (1922).  An amalgam of musical influences, the Quintet presents three movements in a highly virtuosic mode, chromatically adventurous and contrapuntal at once. Its heroically romantic style certainly resonates with colors from his opera, and we can see how its effusive piano part made a fine vehicle for the composer’s own gifts when he premiered it in Hamburg with the Baendler String Quartet.
Like Schubert and Mahler, Korngold freely adapted his various songs into his larger works. The energetic first movement leaps up in the Schumann manner and then proffers a second subject rather simple and lovely. The strict sonata form working-out involves bravura writing for piano and strings; and even the progression of the recapitulation seems intricate and harmonically audacious. The coda features string pizzicati and trills whose harmonic motion swiftly heralds a triumphant conclusion.
The Adagio proceeds as an ingenious set of nine variations from his song cycle Lieder des Abschieds (Songs of Farewell) completed in 1920. The third song, Mond so gehst du wieder auf   (Moon, thou riseth again), provides the main idea that moves through romantic old-style portamentos. Like Schumann, Dvorak, and Alban Berg, the musical motifs and signatures contain anagrams in code to Korngold’s beloved Luise von Sonnenthal. The harmonies resonate with Chausson’s Concert, Op.21 and Richard Strauss, but they retain a distinct personality fully comfortable with variation form. One of the slow variants provides us a kind of violin sonata that plays Alex Redington’s violin against Stott’s liquid piano. Like works by Brahms and Dvorak, elements of the declamatory opening of the last movement Finale (in C-sharp Minor) look back to the Adagio before moving to a merry Rondo theme in the tonic key of E major. In a modified jazzy, even percussive improvisation, the movement invokes all sorts of variations, and the music builds upon individual virtuoso sequences before a clever cyclical return to the opening theme of the entire work for the decisive final cadence.
Korngold began work on his Sextet in D around 1914, and the augmented Rose Quartet premiered the piece successfully in 1917. Brahms seems to have provided the sonic exemplar for this Korngold work, especially the nostalgic longing of that composer’s Op. 18. In four movements, Korngold reveals his contrapuntal skills and his concern for inner-voice textures based on a kernel triplet figure. In the opening Moderato, the first violin enjoys some concertante bravura before the piece modulates, Allegro, to the luxuriant second theme in B Major. Occasionally, the fierce, fugal intensity of the writing invites a kinship with another famous sextet of the period, the Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4, of contemporary Arnold Schoenberg. A rather witty vitriolic coda in pizzicati leads us to the decisive final chord.
The first cello assumes the leadership role for the erotic Adagio movement, rife with passing allusions to Wagner and to an earlier Korngold song to words by Siegfried Trebitsch, appropriately entitled “Nachts.” Since the opening appoggiatura combines D Major and D Minor, Korngold’s excursions in bitonality seem rather inevitable. The Doric Quartet and company execute various slides and suspensions that accentuate the cello’s (and later first violin’s) passionate reminiscences.
The ensuing Intermezzo again invokes the spirit of Brahms, except that this Viennese waltz rustically parodies itself without embarrassment. Korngold likes to utilize his motto tune “Motif of the Cheerful Heart,” which came to infiltrate most of his mature works. Nostalgia in the Dvorak mode characterizes the glissando-ridden Trio section. We soon swing back into the waltz, now elaborated upon by a concertante violin, which capers flippantly through the otherwise sentimental riffs of this charmed movement. The last movement Finale opens pizzicato on four B-flats that soon have us moving with jerky, spirited abandon to D Major and a theme in Cello I.  The Presto acceleration occurs in varieties of colors and timbres, even permitting the first violin a plaintive melody. The writing typically thickens into contrapuntal and rustic paste, all quite virtuosic. The weirder accents may suggest that Kurt Weill’s world is not far away, but neither is Dvorak’s saving ethos. By now, we have noticed the abundance of references to prior movements, so the cyclical move to the coda comes us no shock, but as a reminder of Korngold’s urge to economy of classical form and often lovely content.
—Gary Lemco

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