“The Korngold Project – Part 1” = ERICH KORNGOLD: Suite; Piano Trio – Two Pianists

by | Jan 27, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

“The Korngold Project – Part One” = ERICH KORNGOLD: Suite Op. 23 for two violins, cello and piano left hand; Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 – Luis Magalhães, piano/Daniel Rowland & Priya Mitchell, violins/Julian Arp, cello – Two Pianists TP1039282, 69:43 [Distr. by Naxos] (8/14/15) ***:

A couple of oddities here, mostly worth your time.
The ‘Two Pianists’ of the record label here are the present Luis Magalhães and his wife and Two Pianists’ duo partner, Nina Schumann. The husband and wife team has received much accolade and have recorded this “Part One” disc in a projected series of the chamber music involving piano by twentieth century Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

To me, one of the tragedies of Korngold’s career is, being a Jew in Nazi held Austria, he had to escape, settling eventually in Los Angeles. His concert hall output – as well as his expansive, ‘over the top’ but gorgeous operas – never really earned him the fame he deserved in Europe. The other tragedy is that, while in California, he made good money writing film scores for the major studios. While many of these are really at the ‘top of the bar’ for film music in early Hollywood (such as his picturesque “The Sea Hawk” or his award- winning “Anthony Adverse”); these are none the less film scores. Yet, Korngold considered film “operas without singing” and this vision pervades his music.

So the idea to capture some of his “serious” works, especially the smaller ones, is admirable, indeed. We get two early Korngold works, written while Korngold was affiliated with the renowned Vienna Trio, prior to the First World War. The Piano Trio in D, 1909, was not, literally, Korngold’s first composition but was the first he decided to assign an opus number to; no doubt because he envisioned this his first of a projected long line of classical art house compositions.

The Trio is a fairly typical four movement work that shows the composer’s penchant for Romanticism and plenty of rambling, chromatic modulations and bold shifts in mood and tempo. It was known that Korngold idolized Mahler, whose music contains many examples of this same writing style. The Trio was premiered by the esteemed ensemble it was written for but it was not immediately loved. The Korngold family, led by Erich’s father, Julius, ended up suing a local critic, Max Graf, who pretty much excoriated the work. To this day, it remains an admired but underplayed masterpiece for its appreciable demands on the players as well as the audience.

The Suite, opus twenty-three, is a similarly minded expansive, lush adventure. Korngold includes a waltz; very Viennese, but followed by a “Groteske”, essentially a scherzo with a requisite ‘spikyness’ to it. He even puts a lovely Lied in as the fourth movement which is actually an existing melody to one of Korngold’s own songs, “What You Are to Me.” It is an often quite lovely work that does ramble a bit but the main curiosity here is that the piano part is indicated for “left hand only.”
This seemingly unusual or gimmicky decision does not seem so when we learn that Korngold had written the work for the excellent pianist and patron of the arts Paul Wittengstein, who lost his right arm in World War I.
Both of these works are a bit of a rarity and they do both meander just a bit. However, this is lovely music played very well by the forces on this recording. Korngold is a composer whose music deserves to be explored more thoroughly. The recording itself is quite good here too and I would be quite interested in hearing whatever is to be found on Magalhães’ projected “Korngold Project – Part Two.”

—Daniel Coombs