Erich Wolfgang Korngold / Richard Strauss

Sonatas for Violin & Piano

Frantisek Novotny (violin), Serguei Milstein (piano)

© 2004 Clarton / CQ 0059-2 131

Strauss and Korngold had much in common.  Both began composing around the age of six.  Both wrote works in nearly all musical genres: chamber, orchestral, instrumental, opera, ballet.  Both produced Lieder (“songs”) – with either piano or orchestral accompaniment – that appear across their entire compositional oeuvre.  Both were the most talked-about musician/composers of their early careers, established musical voices in the late-Romantic traditions that would remain firm throughout their composing lives, and became anachronisms in later life as their tonal voices became eclipsed by the progressive schools of Schoenberg and his followers.  Strauss greatly admired and helped promote the music of the young Korngold while serving as a musical mentor to the young prodigy, and Korngold greatly admired and respected the elder.  All of which makes the coupling of their only respective violin sonatas appropriate.

Having just completed a large-scale orchestral work, the Sinfonietta in B-major, Op. 5, Korngold withdrew to the less weighty world of chamber music, a pattern he followed throughout his life.  Of the four specifically titled “Sonata” that Korngold wrote, the only one not for solo piano – the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major, Op. 6 (1912) – was probably requested by Artur Schnabel and Carl Flesch, the former having premiered Korngold’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 2, to wide acclaim.  While the first recording of the violin sonata in 1974 included some minor cuts (ostensibly to let it fit on one LP), there have been nine recordings of the work prior to the new release on Cesky/Clarton by Frantisek Novotny and Serguei Milstein.

Like Stacey and Scot Woolley in their 1991 recording, Novotny and Milstein opt for a slower interpretation of the work.  Though the speeds taken by both sets of performers are very similar, the latter, newer, is a much more engaging performance.  Playing with immediate feeling and conveying a sense of thorough understanding of, and familiarity with the piece, the musicians appear to emphasize what’s behind the music, in addition to simply presenting the music itself.

Aided by a sympathetic acoustic of the recording venue, the playing comes across with a transparency and a clean articulation, allowing the listener to hear clearly the details of the writing.  In this way, the present recording helps promote an apparent goal of the piece, in which “…Korngold strove [for] a lyrically transparent classical style allowing the opportunity for delicate timbre,…  This delicate timbre allows capaciousness for apparent contradictions…” (1992, Knut Franke, liner notes for the Calig CAL 50-905 recording)

Adopting slower speeds can be a danger if the listener senses a lack of forward momentum, however, and this recording rides that fine line in spots.  This is most noticeable in the scherzo, which at times seems almost languid, and in several moments previous recordings seem to better capture the youthful exuberance commonly associated with Korngold’s works from this period.  On a positive note, the slower tempo does allow for easy, audible examination of fine details in the music that tend to get lost in the other, faster performances.

Despite all of this, Novotny’s violin playing is some of the best heard by this writer in this composition.  The playing exhibited in the trio section of the scherzo is one of the most lush, and seemingly idiomatic performances recorded.  And Novotny adopts a very noticeable yet discrete use of portamenti, which at the time of composition would have been used frequently but for the last 50-years-or-so has been deemed “old-fashioned” or “overly romantic” and generally frowned upon.  Heard in a recording of this work for the first time, the use of the portamenti brings a new and welcome depth to Korngold’s broad and poetic melodies.  Milstein is also a very capable and sympathetic pianist, partnering Novotny’s playing excellently to produce a satisfying performance of the Korngold’s Violin Sonata in G.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 18 (1887), was Richard Strauss’s (1864-1949) last serious composition in absolute (chamber) music before establishing himself as a major figure of tone poems.  Like Korngold’s sonata, his was seriously neglected until recent times, but unlike the former, the Strauss sonata was rarely performed in his lifetime.  Like most violin sonatas written in the late 19th century and beyond, the work is a virtuosic one rather than one intended for domestic music making.

As with the Korngold recording, Novotny and Milstein approach the Strauss Sonata with a slower tempo, similar to the Lefevre/Gastaldi recording (2003, Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 030503).  The playing is articulate, consistently of high quality, demonstrates a thorough familiarity with the piece, and contains all the passion and intensity expected in a late Romantic work.  The pair provide a consistent sensitivity in their playing, providing a reading expressive in all respects, but perhaps lacking the incisive edge apparent in some other recordings.  And unlike the Korngold, at no time does the listener feel the momentum of the music is at all restrained.  In all, a wholly engaging performance.

The fanfare-like opening, and Strauss’s fondness for expansive melodies, would seem to presage aspects of the younger Korngold’s music twenty-five years later.  The string writing (Strauss was trained on violin from an early age) is perceivable as more natural and idiomatic in comparison with that of the “progressive” Korngold seeking to push the instrument’s – and player’s – capabilities to the limit.  The piano part is rich without seeming orchestral, and Novotny and Milstein sound completely at home with the work.

The cantabile aspect of the slow movement is brought out with excellent handling, comparable to the trio section of the Korngold scherzo and the final movement is superbly realized, supporting Brendan Carroll’s liner note observation that it is “…arguably the best movement.”  We may not be quite as captivated in this recording compared to Heifetz/Neveu or the Chung/Zimerman, but the performance is distinguished nonetheless.  Hearing the present recording today, we may find it hard to understand why this sonata never entered the repertoire.

This CD was made with the support of the International Korngold Society, and it should be noted for the Korngold enthusiast that the Sonata, Op. 6 was recorded in Brno – the city of Korngold’s birth – in October 1997, the centennial year of Korngold’s birth.  The liner notes provided by Brendan Carroll are also illuminating and educational on both sonatas, and on the relationship between Strauss and Korngold.

© November 2004, Troy O. Dixon

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DIE TOTE STADT DVD REVIEW

 

Until we in Britain get our first staging of Korngold's successful opera, this DVD of the last year's French premiere will have to suffice, warts and all.

The plot of the bereaved man's obsessive fantasy offers plenty of scope for directional interpretation, and Inga Levant lets her imagination run riot, taking Korngold's Hollywood connection as a cue to allude to as many films as she can,

Marietta stands over an air vent a la Monroe; Paul keeps the clothed skeleton of his dead wife in a cupboard in true hammer Horror Style; and the Act II theatrical troupe puts an poster of Robert the Devil's starring Erron Flyn and Bette Davis' for its Meyerbeer rehearsal.

The result is a juvenile mish-mash of visual distraction that does nothing to illuminate the drama.

Musically, though, it has its strengths, and in Torsten Kerl a tenor who can cope both with Paul's vocal challenges and the role's psychological free-fall.

As Marietta,Angela Denoke does not always make the most beautiful of sounds, but her dramatic conviction in never in doubt. There's a fine cameo from Stephan Genz as Fritz (accompanied by a chorus of nuns decked in the stars and Stripes&ldots;) and the Strasbourg Philharmonic plays magnificently for Jan Latham-Koenig.

Although it offers no extras, this release at least makes good use of DVD's audio capabilities, directing the singing through the central 'set-top' channel in surround sound; the camerawork in excellent.

 

Matthew Rye (Taken from BBC music magazine December issue)

 

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FROM 'FILMSCOREMONHLY.COM' - New Review:-

 

  Previn Conducts Korngold: The Sea Hawk **** ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD

  Deutsche Grammophon 471 347-2 -31 tracks - 67:59

 

  Already long established Internationally as a composer of Opera and

Symphonies Erich Wolfgang Korngold first went to Hollywood in 1934 (at the invitation of fellow Austrian, Director Max Reinhardt) to work on arrangements of Mendelssohn's music for Warner Brothers A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was to be the start of a long, happy relationship Korngold was to have with Hollywood, as he made his film music that he described as "Opera without singing." Deutsche Grammophon got together Andre Previn to conduct The London Symphony Orchestra in Abbey Road Studios in London during July of 2001 to record a collection of Korngold's work. The album focuses on four films: Captain Blood (1935),The Prince and the Pauper (1937),

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

The album opens up with The Sea Hawk, Korngold's last Swashbucklermovie, where the hero is played by Errol Flynn. It's a thrilling uplifting score, full of pomp and assured self-confidence, which has been a huge influence on today's orchestral film composers. Everyone from John Williams, Danny Elfman and Patrick Doyle to Hans Zimmer owes some debt to the sound of Erich Korngold. His huge fanfares, lush strings, driving timpani and sweeping melodies have inspired thousands of adventure overtures. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was Warner Brothers' most important film of 1939 -- it was made in Technicolor and starred Bette Davis in one of her most endearing roles.

The main title is a sustained, royal overture designed to pull the audience into the mind of Queen Elizabeth. Her theme, "Lady Penelope," follows, wistful and yearning as she realizes her own love for Essex is never to be returned, a small string section creating a delicately poised sound. "Elizabeth the Queen" presents the human side of the aging monarch as she declares her love for Essex.Captain Blood was Korngold's first completely original score for thescreen. From the very start, the overture ("Main Title") presents a full-blown symphonic treatment unheard in filmmusic before. Giant brass proclaim typical Korngoldian fanfares while the soaring string melody takes you into the vast atmospheres of both ship and sea. But Korngold could be extremely subtle as well. "Sold into Slavery" presents an unsettling harmony of the main theme and an orchestration that creates a haunting mood before a new yearning string melody takes center stage.

Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with accustomed poise, power and grace. This collection is a grand, sumptuous, lush orchestral history lesson from one of Hollywood's musical founding fathers.

Simon Duff

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Reviews for "Die tote Stadt" and Violin Concerto Author:Mr Bob Glaser (editor)

I was fortunate to have experienced an 'All Korngold' weekend on the weekend of
April 20-22. This consisted of attending a Friday evening dress rehearsal of the
Greenwich Symphony Orchestra performing Korngold's Violin Concerto with Reiko
Watanabe as the soloist. This was followed by a Saturday matinee performance of
Die Tote Stadt at the New York City Opera. Following on Sunday with the
performance of Violin Concerto previously mentioned.

I shall start by reviewing the opera performance. I have seen this production
before at the NYCO in the New York State Theater, the last time it was being
performed in the early 1990's. That performance left much to be desired but I
was thrilled to hear a live performance of this rarely performed (in the US)
gem.
The current performance was superior on almost every level. I found the
soloists all capable in vocal strength as well as technical and artistic ability
to handle all of the lead roles. A surprise was Lori-Kaye Miller who sang the
role of Briggita as a substitute for Eugenie Grunewald. As a debut artist at the
NYCO Eugenie Grunewald had the type of voice and ability that may, one day, lead
to great acclaim. Significantly both John Horton Murray as Paul and Lauren
Flanigan as Marietta/Marie were up to the task and were never lost beneath
Korngold's orchestrations. Lori-Kaye Miller's performance of Marietta was a
little inconsistent from an acting standpoint but based on the majority of the
performance it may have been a problem of direction and not acting.
Specifically, her entrance in the first act should have been a great flourish or
at least more of a flourish in keeping with the music. Instead, she walked in
with the slow solemn gait of a bride on her way to the alter.
Mel Ulrich who sang the role of Fritz/Pierrot was also well recieved by the
house after his solo in the second act. His voice was strong and mellow and
brought pathos to the aria without broaching on parody. Although I might have
preferred a little more passion here, it would be minimal and he did sing with a
beauty that made the aria quite enjoyable.
The first of two other complaints about this performance were first the cuts
made to shorten it. I have never been able to figure out the rational for these
since the opera is only shortened by 15 or so minutes (almost 10 minutes of
these cuts are in the first act). It seems unlikely that it was due to
difficulty in the orchestral parts based on the specific cuts made nor would it
be staging issue for the same reason. There is the possibility that it may have
been less taxing on John Horton Murray as Paul but the power of this mans voice
seemed able to handle the part with seeming ease. Secondly I was somewhat
annoyed with the slowness of some of the tempos taken. This was most noticeable
in "Gluck das mir Verblieb.." Although beautifully performed, it dragged in a
way that made you lean forward in your seat hoping to push it along. Maestro
Manahan stated that he preferred the recording of Segerstam to Liensdorf and
maybe that's part of the reason. Segerstam made similar cuts and frequently took
painfully slow tempos. Interestingly Liensdorf tempos were still in places
slower that Korngold himself had specified. If you listen to Korngold conducting
any of his own works (not just the film music), you will see that he maintained
quite a brisk pace compared to most of today's (and recent yesterdays)
conductors.
All of this notwithstanding, Maestro Manahan managed to maintain a well balanced
and unified ensemble in the NYCO Orchestra. I have not heard them play better.
Detail, subtlety as well as power and grandeur were not lost in this conductors
control or for that matter the orchestra's performance.
A note on the stage design which has been around since 1975. The stage is
set in a moderately minimal fashion. Window Frames, a few pieces of furniture,
or a boat to indicate being on a quai. The rest is done with projections on a
scrim and the wall behind. These slide projections are very effective when they
are combined with suitable lighting and occasionally used fog effects. The there
are two aspects of this production however that need to be mentioned. In the
preludes to the second and more so the third acts, movie projections are used
and these are both out of place with the story and in the third act prelude,
they are laughable. The comments I heard around me attest to that. Additionally,
I was seated for this performance in the first ring and almost dead center. The
previous performance I attended I was seated also in the first ring but
significantly to the left. From a skewed vantage point the projections tend to
lose much of their effect and tend to become far less integrated with the
physical set.
Do not presume that these problems or discrepancies were significant enough
ruin a performance. They were merely minor distractions to a great performance.

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Next came the performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto by the Greenwich
Symphony conducted by David Gilbert with Reiko Watanabe as soloist. This was
also a nice experience. As the soloist, Ms. Watanabe played with great technical
skill. Some of the playing I would consider of more technical skill than heart.
In a work as lyrical in its late romantic ways as this, a delicate balance of
skill and passion are important to the performance. In the first movement her
restraint showed of the music well. The more flowing lines of this movement were
subtlety handled and the more difficult passages were transitioned to nicely.
The second movement was a little more problematic. Not flawed but rather
executed with more efficiency than romanticism. This is not to imply that she
rushed through it so much as just 'played' it. I will say that she played the
mysterioso sections with a feeling that showed that she knew the intention of
the score. I thought it interesting that she played one small passage in the
middle of the movement in artificial harmonics - which appear on no version of
the score that I have ever seen. I'm not sure what the reason that this was
done. I'll leave that up to the reader to guess. When it came to pure skill
needed in the third movement, she soared. She bounced through this with all of
the laughter and joviality required without ever losing momentum. This movement
is one of my favorite 'sections' of Korngold's music. I was not disappointed
with her playing at all here.
As to the orchestra, they played far better than I had expected, considering
the difficulty of the score. They may not have been 'world class' but then that
designation is reserved rightfully to a few. They were up to the task and could
easily challenge any of the larger city orchestras in the U.S. David Gilbert did
a more than adequate job of maintaining the control of Korngold's 'built-in'
rubatos. His one failing was hiding the celesta part. Since this instrument was
not only a favorite of Korngold's it is used extensively throughout this
concerto and frequently as a soloing instrument. Much of this was lost in this
performance. I could not hear it at all even in those sections where I knew note
for note what was being played. This was not an issue of being played over by
other instruments, it was more a issue of the level the celesta was played and
possibly its placement in the back of the orchestra (oddly by itself on the
right - near the brass). This may seem like a trivial remark, but if you lis
ten to most any recording of this concerto, you'll realize its prominence in the
orchestration. Other than this, the rest of the orchestra was well balanced
particularly in reference to the brass and percussion sections. They played the
mysterioso sections of the first and second movements with finesse and the great
fanfare toward the last third of the third movement (this was the fanfare used
to open the film The "Prince and the Pauper") with a golden era bravado. All
said, it was a memorable experience.

Bob Glaser (editor)