When Old Vienna meets Hollywood:
The music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold
© Chris Green, December 2019
I often have to give lectures about the history of Film Music, and the series will assuredly always feature one of the founding fathers of the Classic Hollywood film score- Erick Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Korngold was one of a handful of émigrés who made the West coast of the USA their home after the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany and the anschluss in Austria. Korngold and his family was one of that handful along with Max Steiner, Hugo Friedhoffer and Miklos Rozsa. Together they changed the face of the film music score, bringing to the art of writing scores, some of the ideas that they had garnered from the likes of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
But then Korngold was no ordinary musician. He had been hailed as a "child genius" both as a composer and as a performer, playing before the Emperor of Austria when he was but a few years old. He was supported by a pushy father Julius, who was a celebrated Viennese music critic, and demonstrated in his early compositions a gift for melody, for rich harmonic constructions as well as the ability to develop a musical argument.
He wrote one symphony completed between 1947 and 1952, and after years of neglect that symphony has now come to take its rightful place in the pantheon of great post-war classics. A new recording conducted by British conductor John Wilson has provided us with a fine reading of the work with Wilson conducting the Sinfonia of London. Now if you have never heard of that Orchestra, you may be forgiven. As a youngster, I was brought up on LP records performed by this hand-picked bunch of London-based professionals who made recordings for a Subscription Record label. Indeed, I still have some of them. Their playing was hailed as a breath of fresh air- which was not entirely fair on the other London orchestras.
Now John Wilson has resurrected the name and here they are tackling a work which is known for the demands it places on its performers. The strings soar to great heights and yet have to sound solid ion their melodic line- typical of what was demanded of Hollywood players. That they meet all this and much more is not surprising.
The symphony is a big work lasting nearly 45 minutes and with contrasting textures mirroring the almost Waltonian scherzo and the brooding Mahlerian slow movement with a chirpy finale to bring the whole thing to a close.
The Chandos recording (CHAN 5220) has acoustic space which the work requires and the London church used for the recording in no way blurs the textures of the large symphonic body required to perform the work which takes its place alongside two other compositions by Korngold, the Theme and Variations (1953) and Straussiana (also composed in the same year).
The tragedy: Korngold did not live longer to undertake a return to the medium of which he was best- opera and the symphonic orchestral score. But we must be grateful that these works survive and orchestras are prepared to tackle them.