“Young Hearts on Fire: Music for Strings by Korngold, Rossini & Mendelssohn” = MENDELSSOHN: Sinfornia for Strings No. 10 in B Minor; KORNGOLD: String Sextet Op. 10 in D Major; ROSSINI: Sonata a quattro No. 6 in D Major – EnsembleCaméléon – Challenge Classics CC72368 [Distr. by Allegro], 59:11 ****:
This recording presents the very early works of three musical prodigies who have just about nothing in common except the fact that their talents were prodigious. The title is suggested by an observation of Franz Liszt that acts as a lengthy epigraph to the booklet notes: “Surely you know about the awkward years between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, when a young man is preoccupied with the world around him and susceptible to whatever people, things and places he encounters. His heart is all aglow, and so fatally strong is his urge to love that wherever he goes, he leaves his heart behind.” Note writer Vrouwkje Tuinman uses this as a jumping-off point for an essay that combines biography with a large dose of adolescent psychology. It makes for disjointed but interesting reading, the one point where Tuinman really seems to touch on Liszt’s observation being the most trenchant: “The wide range of emotions and moods in each of these works may be typical of adolescents, but they also convey a sense of subtlety and experience far beyond their composers’ years. In Korngold’s words to his mistrustful father: ‘one does not need to have experienced love in person in order to write about it.’”
Of the three young composers represented here, two were seemingly happy in their artistic lives, one not. That one, Erich Korngold, predictably didn’t live up to the great promise of his youth. The other two composers were confident in their ability to make their lasting mark and their living through music.
Korngold’s problem stemmed from a family issue: his father, the eminent music critic Julius Korngold, forced him into the role of composer. The notes to this recording recount an episode from Korngold’s eleventh year, when the child wept bitters tears over his fear that his compositions wouldn’t meet his father’s high critical standards. Given this childhood in name only, it’s amazing Korngold didn’t have the kind of emotional meltdown documented in the film Fear Strikes Out, the chilling story of Major League baseball player Jimmy Piersall, whose father’s domineering influence drove him into a mental institution.
But what about the other two young men, who apparently believed that composition was their calling? One, Mendelssohn, grew up in a wealthy well-connected family that could afford the best teachers and even the opportunity for the young composer’s music to be tried out by professional musicians in the family’s music room. However, because well-to-do young men generally didn’t lower themselves to engage in the arts, at least as a way to make a living, Mendelssohn’s compositional talents were encouraged but not overly stressed by his parents, who probably considered writing music a fine avocation, like painting watercolors, which Mendelssohn also had a gift for. In fact, during his lifetime Mendelssohn was considered, in some circles, a dilettante rather than a serious composer.
Rossini, on the other hand, had the kind of childhood that only a musical genius could turn to advantage. His father was imprisoned as an insurrectionist, his mother had to make what little living she could as a singer, and the young Rossini was put in the care of a hog butcher and ultimately apprenticed to a blacksmith. Along the way, he received a variable musical education, finally studying cello and counterpoint formally, although he always maintained that he taught himself most of what he knew about composition, or at least orchestration, by studying and scoring the works of Haydn and Mozart, his idol among composers.
Of the three works on the program, Rossini’s, written in his twelfth year while on vacation at a friend’s house, is the sunniest and most melodic, showing the composer’s affinity even at this date for operatic melody and gesture. The sonata is the last of six that Rossini tossed off in matter of three days. He debuted it with a group of friends who, according to the composer, “played like dogs”; Rossini, playing second violin, “was, to tell the truth, the least doggish.” These fresh little works are deservedly popular now though they languished unheard till the manuscript was discovered in the 1940s.
Mendelssohn’s piece is the only one of the Twelve String Symphonies in one movement, an Adagio introduction and Allegro. At age fourteen, Mendelssohn already showed a penchant for the minor keys, though as in later life, the minor mode more often than not gave him the opportunity to deliver stock dramatic gestures rather than deeply felt emotions. Still, this is a remarkable work, beautifully put together, with excellent melodies that lend themselves naturally to development, interesting turns of phrase, and a whirlwind coda that bears the Mendelssohn patent.
Least familiar but no less remarkable is Korngold’s Sextet, which right away shows the young composer’s debt to Richard Strauss in its languorous melodies that unfold in dusky, then refulgent harmonies. A “wide range of emotions and moods” sums up this work best, as Korngold turns from the smiling leisurely opening of the work to the impassioned development section and back again. The desolate slow music of the second movement is well beyond the emotional range of most teenagers. More Strauss-influenced music comes in the mostly sunny third movement Intermezzo, while the last movement has a comic-opera drive and boisterousness that takes it to yet another place emotionally. If this isn’t a masterpiece, it’s an awfully engaging work held together by the sheer force of Korngold’s compositional will.
These performances by EnsembleCaméléon, which is comprised of players from Holland’s leading orchestras, are all very fine indeed. The playing is skillful, razor-sharp, robust, which it has to be in the Mendelssohn, generally played by a larger body of strings. The playing is so good here that I don’t miss the bigger sound of string orchestra, and in fact the music seems to gain in force and focus in this pared-down scoring. Ditto the Rossini, often played by a string orchestra as well; EnsembleCaméléon convinces that the way to hear this music is in its original chamber-music scoring. My only reservation is that the dry studio recording deprives the playing of its natural warmth, the strings of their natural sheen. I enjoyed the experience best when listening through headphones; then, the acoustic wasn’t a factor, and I could savor the beautiful ensemble work to optimum effect.
In celebration of 150 Years, Vaughan Williams!