Record­ing of the Month

Erich Korn­gold Or­ches­tral mu­sic

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

‘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

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