ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD: String Quartets 1-3; Piano Quintet Op. 15 - Aron Quartet/ Henri Sigfridsson, piano - CPO 777 436-2 (2 CDs) *****:
This two-CD set is a significant release, as it’s been over a decade since there has been a new recording of the complete string quartets of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Anyone who likes late romantic chamber music will be overjoyed to listen to this magnificent recording.
Korngold (1897-1957) was one of the great prodigies of the musical world. At age 11, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Strauss and Puccini lauded his ability to write works of remarkable sophistication. At age 23, he wrote a late Romantic, Expressionist opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) that is still performed today (the San Francisco opera did it in 2008. He went to Hollywood in 1934 to escape the Nazis, realizing that Europe’s musical tastes had shifted to neoclassicism and atonality. In America he became a famous movie composer, writing swashbuckling romantic scores for movies like The Sea Hawk and Kings Row. It’s easy to dismiss these rich, tuneful scores, but they revolutionized the role of music in films. He left Hollywood in 1945 and returned to Europe, but his style was rejected by a culture more interested in radical dissonant music. Only recently, with the resurgent interest in tonality, have such works as the Violin Concerto and the Symphony in F sharp, gained popularity. The chamber works on this disc were composed from 1921 to 1945 and brilliantly combine his melodic genius with modern harmonies that have an orchestral sound to them.
The brilliant development of thematic material and its chromaticism make Korngold’s Piano Quintet one of his most complex, yet accessible chamber works. It’s pregnant with beautiful melodies, especially the gorgeous Adagio, which is a set of nine variations on a song from his cycle, Songs of Farewell. Yet, this movement is intense and atonally subtle. Pianist Henri Sigfridsson and the Aron Quartet negotiate the treacherous leaps and surges fluidly and in a manner that balances the romantic with the modern.
The First Quartet opens dramatically, contrasting leaping fourths and jagged dissonances with melting lyrical melodies. The Adagio expresses a mood of nostalgic sadness. A short frolicsome Intermezzo is followed by an even happier Finale that features a buoyant march. The Second Quartet (1934), written before he left for Hollywood, is full of the effervesence of youth. The Intermezzo is pure joy; the Larghetto lovely and wistful; the Finale a radiant Viennese waltz. The first movement of the Third Quartet (1944) is serious and modern. A tart Scherzo is followed by a nostalgic adagio and an energetic Finale that uses themes from his movie scores, The Sea Wolf and Devotion.
The Viennese-based Aron Quartet play these great quartets from a modern perspective without losing their romantic passion. Recording engineer Andreas Karlberger provides a wide and deep soundstage, perfect for these symphonically-scored chamber works. Don’t miss these brilliant and exciting CDs!
-- Robert Moon
Published on Audiophile Audition (www.audaud.com)on February 16, 2010