KORNGOLD: Symphony in F-sharp Major, Op. 40; Theme and Variations, Op. 42; Straussiana (1953) – Sinfonia of London/ John Wilson – Chandos SACD CHSA 5220, 59:17 (9/6/19) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) still maintains a reputation that lingers in a kind of classical Limbo, hovering between Hollywood glamour and serious musical composition. His Symphony in F-sharp Major (1947-1952), however, composed in memoriam for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dismisses any sense of the composer’s facile, superficial status as a peddler of commercial treacle. Korngold has wrought an intense, physically and psychologically demanding score, conceived for a large ensemble, with an expanded percussion section that includes four horns, three trumpets, four trombones, celesta, marimba, harp, and a piano that serves in the percussion section. Its slow third movement, Adagio: Lento has been hailed as a fine extension of the Bruckner and Mahler tradition, culminating in what Korngold himself calls “an ecstatic Abgesang.” Whether the emotional ethos of the work conveys a sense of tragic disillusionment with the 20th Century (and post-war Vienna) and the “war epoch”, 1933-1945, remains debatable. Dimitri Mitropoulos deemed the piece “the perfect modern work,” but his death prevented his committing the music to recorded posterity.
Rudolf Kempe set the standard of recorded performance of 27 November 1972 with his brilliant, taut rendition for RCA with the Munich Philharmonic that, despite a cut in the frenetic Scherzo movement, made a dazzling, virtuoso impact. The tenor of the first movement, Moderato ma energico, proves immediately unnerving, an extended crescendo – set over 50 measures – built up from jarring, chromatic dissonances and fierce rhythmic urgency. The secondary theme eschews the rising seventh motif, indulging in the respite of fourths and fifths. The B-flat clarinet intoned a motif that haunts us, but the martial development exploits its grim character. The dark music may remind some of the Shostakovich – or William Walton in his First Symphony – sense of political oppression. Wilson’s brass and tympani sections earn their plaudits for their incisive attacks. A series of pungent interjections lead to the alternately lyrical and eerie coda, in which the opening strokes appear col legno, the flute and deep strings in motion, the B-flat clarinet in mourning. The F-sharp Major tonality returns, perhaps a grim homage to both Liszt and Mahler, who saw in the key a color of transcendence.
The Scherzo calls for demonic virtuosity on everyone’s part, a driven tarantella that wants big gestures in the horns and tympani. The secondary tune does convey something of the nobility we know from Korngold’s various treatments for Errol Flynn. Wilson’s tempo beats virtually any rival on record, without missing one agogic beat. The Trio section rises up in weird, wraith-like harmony; perhaps it could be scored for Ray Milland’s The Uninvited. The music economically utilizes four descending notes in modulating colors. Then uncompromising da capo repeats, the Trio compressed, and we fall without a net into the final pages.
Three notes herald the crux of the Symphony, its homage to Mahler Adagio. The main theme evolves for nearly thirty measures, in Bruckner fashion, redolent of stately, funereal pathos. The D minor music gradually assumes epic proportions – doubtless the memorial for FDR – moving in convulsive, explosively lyrical gestures in major, only to revert to the crestfallen, somewhat bitter acceptance of the last pages. Korngold explicitly denied any ‘program’ intention for his music, so we can accept Wilson’s monumental realization of this heartfelt music as a sincere expression of passion and resignation.
The second subject of movement one supplies the motif for the rondo of the Finale: Allegro. The cyclical maneuver, naturally, invokes the spirit of Mahler, here playful and boisterous, a demonstration of orchestral scoring on a bravura level. The clever manipulation of tempo and accents sets the music to a romping gallop, infiltrated by color elements from winds and strings. Of course, we must have a fugato to ensure the academics of their ability to identify scholarly impulses. The hard-won resolution to F-sharp Major asserts the optimism of the music at the last, a singular victory of the spirit and of the ideal of tonal music that retains its significance for our contemporary world.
Korngold responded to the commission from the American School Orchestras Association of 1953 with two works, the first of which we hear is his Theme and Variations. The opening tune bears an “Irish” lilt that gives birth to seven, cleverly wrought variations. Once more, a large orchestral ensemble has the addition of piano and harp to lend extra color to the mix. The canvas proves lyrical and rhythmically exciting, making its own demands on the players, regardless of their youth and experience. If another composer’s spirit seems nigh, it might well be that of Antonin Dvorak. A middle variation sounds almost like an inversion of “Goin’ Home.” The last pages ring forth in the form of a powerful, assertive march not so far from similar. happy tropes in The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring our previously mentioned Mr. Flynn.
The second piece Korngold conceived for the young players of the American Orchestras, the playful Straussiana, three movements that employ polka, mazurka, and waltz tunes from the unrivalled master of the idiom, Johann Strauss, Jr. The second Pizzicato Polka provides the first impetus, taken from the operetta Fuerstin Ninetta, 1893. The mazurka derives from Cagliostro in Wien, where it appears as a polka. The sumptuous waltz appeared in Ritter Pasman (1892), which occasionally pops up at a New Year’s Concert. Each of the selections has flair and elegant sweep, the perfect combination to show off a virtuoso band of young talent.
Recorded at the Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, 14-16 January 2019, the sonic image of these works has been masterfully captured by Recording producer Brian Pidgeon and his Sound engineer Ralph Couzens.