CD Review


© Chris Green, December 2023

Korngold - Orchestral Works Vol. 4

Korngold: Symphony in F sharp major, Op. 40 - Theme and Variations, Op. 42 - Straussiana (1953)
Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5220 • 59' • (SACD)
Recorded: 14-16 January 2019,
Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London


This release from UK-based company, Chandos Records of Essex serves as a welcome addition to the already impressive discography of Austrian composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

I have long been intrigued by Korngold's life. Like Mozart, he had a doting father who occupied a significant role in Viennese society and was not averse to promoting the talents of his precocious son. In many ways, it did Korngold Junior no great favours, and he had to find his own distinctive voice as a composer. He was also a fine young pianist, but composing is where his reputation lay.

During the 1930s he was persuaded to provide additional music to complement the music written by Mendelssohn for A Midsummer Night's Dream . This was going to be used in a Hollywood film of Shakespeare's play with stars like James Cagney in one of the roles.

The gradual menace of Nazi politics in Europe was sufficiently ominous for Korngold and his family to make a return journey to the USA where they stayed during the course of the Second World War. By this time, Korngold had already proved his skill at composing for films. These were mainly swashbuckling epics like The Adventures Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk - films which have become classics. His ability to underline the cinematic action and enhance the plot became legendary, and now these scores have become part of the main stream orchestral repertoire.

In part, this has also turned out for some time to be aa disadvantage to the reputation of Korngold as a composer, for it earned him the reputation as "film-score composer", which is far from the truth. Korngold was a fine composer of works destined for the concert hall, as this latest release demonstrates.

He only wrote one symphony completed in 1952. It contains some of the expansive melodic ideas some of which he had used in his film scores, and the orchestral co9lour is vivid. However, its emergence into the world of performance was far from easy. Its premiere in Vienna (his home town) in 1954 was deemed a failure and the work more or ells disappeared from view until 1972 when conducted Rudolf Kempe discovered a set of orchestral parts in the library of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The world once again was to be taken by surprise by this dramatic work with a slow movement owing much to Korngold's mentor, Mahler.

This new release from Chandos opens with the symphony and includes the same composer's Theme and Variations, and an orchestral embroidering of music by another of his idols, Johann Strauss. It was premiered in November, 1953.

The performances by the Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson themselves are a great tribute to the scores. The Sinfonia of London was formed many years ago as a mainly recording orchestra drawing upon the talents available in London. The orchestra recorded for a subscription label, and then disappeared from the scene until 2019 when conductor John Wilson acquired the performing name of the orchestra. Since then, the ensemble has rocketed to great acclaim, and has recently performed at the BBC Proms. The Chandos recording using the company's Super Audio format ensures that audio fanatics will get more musical information than those of us who perhaps have not upgraded our audio equipment.