Recording of the Month
Erich Korngold Orchestral music
‘The playing of the Sinfonia of London is astonishingly brilliant, with Hollywooddream glories in the string tone’
Symphony in F sharp; Theme and Variations; Straussiana
Sinfonia of London/john Wilson Chandos CHSA 5220 59.17 mins At long last, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp has the recording it deserves. Written between 1947 and ’52, this work is emblematic of its time, place and composer. Korngold, who started out as a child prodigy par excellence, grew up in the musical meltingpot of Mahler’s Vienna, but was forced into exile in Hollywood due to the Nazi invasion, surviving by writing film music; he credited Warner Brothers with saving his life and those of his family. The Symphony is a furious, bitter, grief-stricken work, full of remarkable harmonic sleight of hand and technicolour orchestration; and it makes tremendous demands on its performers. Wilson and his Sinfonia of London bring us the work as it needs to sound, yet rarely has: the result packs a devastating emotional punch.
Recognising that listeners might read into its huge, tragic Adagio a tribute to the horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust, Korngold insisted the Symphony was ‘pure music’, never intended as a memorial. But it serves as one anyway. Some of it is based on his film music, transformed almost beyond recognition.
The main theme of that Adagio, for instance, comes straight from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, where it portrays Essex contemplating his imminent execution. It is the perfect example of ‘it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it’, for the Adagio is one of the finest things Korngold ever wrote – and Wilson shapes it unerringly to a great, heartbreaking climax.
Throughout, he and the Sinfonia of London render the symphony with the same breathtaking intensity, rigour and sweeping momentum that characterised Korngold’s own conducting and playing. Above all, there’s a white-hot passion to it, which is absolutely necessary. Too often other musicians play Korngold too slowly and soggily, whether because of some preconception that Hollywood means schmalz (no – it needs to swashbuckle), or that music considered sugary requires extra helpings of cream (anything but!) – or because it’s simply too damned difficult. There’s never a hint of that here.
The Sinfonia of London’s pre-existing name was recently acquired by Wilson for recording purposes and he has convened it as a crack team of top-notch freelance musicians, led by the violinist Andrew Haveron. Their playing is astonishingly brilliant. Indeed, there are Hollywood-dream glories in the string tone; and
Above all, there’s a white-hot passion to the playing which is absolutely necessary
its ensemble is concentrated and unified, no matter how extreme Korngold’s controlfreakery becomes – he grew up expecting to have the Vienna Philharmonic at his fingertips and wrote accordingly. The recorded sound matches the playing for liveliness, clarity, definition and warmth.
The Theme and Variations – written for a student orchestra that must have been extremely good – is presented with tenderness and exemplary attention to detail. Straussiana pays tribute to the world of operetta, which Korngold loved and worked in for some years. Here Wilson embraces splendid Viennese schwung and captures that special blend of nostalgia, wit, grace, lightness and joy that speaks ‘authentic Vienna’ loud and clear. Authentic Korngold? Yes indeed.
Style without syrup: recording Korngold in St Augustine’s, Kilburn