Four stars, yet one can’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment. Last August Chandos released a Korngold compilation that truly swept the board. John Wilson and his reconstituted Sinfonia of London set new standards in two late pieces, the Theme and Variations and Straussiana, while providing a fleet and powerful view of Korngold’s long-overlooked Symphony (its tenth commercial recording). The present programme is less generous, with neither work ranking among Korngold’s more neglected utterances. Things were different in 1977 when Gramophone’s critic – it would be cruel to name him – attributed the survival of the Violin Concerto to the Jascha Heifetz connection: “…who plays it now? The category of ‘unjustly neglected composers’, dear to some, has never been one to draw tears from me. …there is something cruel about the total eclipse which has overtaken Korngold after such a prodigious early career. I doubt, though, whether the concert hall is going to remember him.” An earlier New York Times review by Irving Kolodin was the source of the wounding observation that the composer’s music was “more corn than gold.” Times change and to date there have been some sixty recordings of the Concerto according to Korngold biographer Brendan G. Carroll who provides an authoritative if understandably partisan booklet note for the present issue.
While less ubiquitous than the Violin Concerto, the Sextet has had its champions too, among them the Raphael Ensemble, some thirty years ago on the Hyperion label, and more recently the Doric Quartet and friends on Chandos. It is a product of the composer’s teenage years when he was widely regarded as a second Mendelssohn and by no means old hat. However overwrought, the idiom is more than Dvořák meets Schoenberg, already displaying the sort of unmistakable ‘biological’ personality that counts for more than fealty to a particular school or ism. Korngold’s equivalent of Shostakovich’s DSCH, his “motif of the cheerful heart” is to be found in both works.
I had anticipated a fleshed-out version of the Sextet, along the lines of the recording by Wrocław’s twentyish strong NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra on CPO, but not so. The group billed as the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble comprises just the required six players. All have impressive CVs encompassing stints with conventional symphony orchestras (as guest principals or section leaders) and/or big name quartets, not to mention the more specialist John Wilson Orchestra. Those who got to know this work through the advocacy of the Raphael Ensemble in an ecclesiastical acoustic will find something crunchier here. Tempos feel more pressurised, the vibrato is insistent and the instruments are close-miked without a halo of resonance. You may or may not find that immediacy a boon – the previous Chandos recording, warmer and airier, conforms more closely to the label’s house style. The new, mainly British, Haveron-led team prioritise forward momentum as much as nostalgic reverie in the slow movement, rather as Wilson and his larger forces did in the third movement of the Symphony. I did sometimes wonder whether a more relaxed approach might not have mitigated the rather relentless effect of Korngold’s writing. Haveron and colleagues play this quirky teenage score with no apology and an awareness of the film composer to come.
The Violin Concerto, placed first in physical format, features the smallish RTÉ Concert Orchestra of which John Wilson was Principal Conductor when this recording was made, some time prior to the advent of the deep-pile Sinfonia of London. A recording team led by Andrew Keener nevertheless contrive a suitably glamorous effect. Despite what sounds like a close focus on the soloist, the studio is flooded with ‘atmosphere’ to such an extent that the fast-moving Finale may sound a little swimmy to some ears. Was this intended to compensate for the absence of surround sound?
The Classical Source has since learned that neither the producer nor his engineer Simon Eadon were involved in Chandos's final in-house re-mastering, which makes a commendable job of disguising what Andrew Keener describes as “RTE’s smallest, extremely dry studio." DG
As you would expect with Wilson in charge, plenty of detail comes through even so. There’s nothing generalised about an orchestral contribution that reveals so many unsuspected pockets of colour and enough linear functionality to make rival recordings appear superficial. The texture includes cymbal, gong, bass drum, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, harp and celesta. Not that you’d know it elsewhere. One awkward corner for the strings that’s usually fudged comes just before the five-minute mark in the slow movement. Avanti! so often proves to be one of Korngold’s more optimistic markings two bars after fig. 52 that it’s a surprise to hear a few bars jerking forward abruptly come scritto before the reverie is resumed.
While Haveron may not be the biggest name to have tackled the Concerto in recent years he is an immensely accomplished player. Following his years with the Brodsky Quartet, London audiences currently know him best as a peripatetic guest leader (his core concertmaster role is with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra). Haveron gave a fine account of the Korngold in 2010 at the Barbican Hall with Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and he has since played it under Wilson. His approach, while no doubt stylistically affected by his work with that conductor in vibrato-rich Hollywood-related projects, is never sentimental and the first movement is also less thrusting than I was expecting. Then again, what constitutes authenticity there? Non-specialist listeners usually imagine that the Violin Concerto was written for Heifetz – that is after all what it says in several booklet essays. Not so, even if he had a hand in making more complex the solo part at a late stage. The project was in fact conceived in the 1930s and tried out by the violinist Robert Pollak (1880–1962) long before its post-War association with first Bronisław Huberman (who turned out not to be keen) and only then, finally, with Heifetz.
There is plain speaking as well as cinematic sheen in Haveron’s interpretation. In the first movement a certain restraint is preferred to Heifetz’s unyielding intensity and breathless drive, at least until the dash to the finishing line. A perusal of the score reveals the rubato and the heightened expressivity to be largely written in, with copious changes of tempo and time signature though fewer detailed expressive instructions of the kind you get in Mahler. Perhaps the music is actually ‘about’ how well the violinist can make the instrument sing even if a more relaxed interpretation risks torpedoing the song.
There is just about sufficient contrast of pace here to make the lyrical and lustrous ‘Romanze’ slow movement seem more than a continuation of its predecessor. Wilson elicits a special atmosphere with vibraphone, celesta and harp “surround[ing] the soloist in an impressionistic halo of delicate sounds” as Carroll describes the intended effect. Haveron’s instrument sounds glorious too, tonally bewitching, never too gloopy and impeccably in tune. The performance of this movement alone makes the release a compulsory purchase. The Finale remains the weakest of the three but incisive rhythms and an uncommonly light touch pay real dividends. This line-up gets the jokes and rejuvenates what can come across as rather self-limiting invention with real enthusiasm.
Recommended for sure but is it too much to hope for a Korngold Symphonic Serenade from Wilson and the Sinfonia?