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Friday, December 16, 2005
I've Got Good News and Bad News ...
Piano Trio & Sonata for Violin and Piano
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Profil (Edition Günter Hänssler)PH05024

First the good news. These excellent performers know how to make these two fabulous pieces sing. And swing. The bad news: they've slashed them to bits. I've never seen chamber music -- or anything other than an opera or an R-rated movie edited for TV -- subjected to such hideous cuts. That makes this CD a "must-to-avoid." However, the repertoire is essential, and fortunately there are other recordings available, which I’ll discuss below.

The editorial vandalism is truly a shame, because the playing is vigorous and expressive, perfect for these two ardently youthful works from the greatest musical prodigy in the history of western classical music. (Yes, more so than Mozart or Mendelssohn as teenagers.) The Trio is Korngold's Op.1, written in early 1910 when he was 12 years old, and the Violin Sonata is Op.6 from three years later, bracketed by the smashing 45-minute long Sinfonietta (Op.5) which was praised effusively by Mahler, Strauss and Sibelius, and his first two operas, Der Ring des Polykrates (Op.7) and Violanta (Op.8) which made him a musical superstar in Vienna where opera was consumed like movies are in Hollywood.

On the subject of Hollywood, by the way, Korngold’s later career as a film composer is completely irrelevant here, as indeed it is to all of his concert music. Korngold created and developed his style before he probably even knew that movies existed, and when he first went to Hollywood in 1934 it was at the request of Max Reinhardt, the Peter Sellars of his day, who was committing his famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to film and wanted Korngold to adapt Mendelssohn’s music. Korngold succeeded not only in his duties as an arranger but also, as conductor, in upgrading the Warner Brothers Orchestra to symphonic caliber. Warners was desperate to have him back, and gave him a generous arrangement that allowed him to come to Hollywood for a couple of months per year to score any of their projects that interested him. This enabled him to replace his performing and publishing income from Germany, which had been eradicated by the rise of the Nazis in 1933.

Here let me correct an egregious error in the booklet notes: “Wise enough not to wait until [the last moment], Korngold emigrated to the USA in 1934.” This is nonsense. Korngold resisted every opportunity to move to America, holding tightly to his beloved Vienna where he had been voted the most important composer of the 1920s (along with Schönberg) and was working on a new opera. His hand was forced when the Nazis marched into Vienna in 1938 while he was in Hollywood to discuss scoring Robin Hood (starring Errol Flynn), cutting him off from his home, his possessions and his personal wealth. Korngold became a film composer in Hollywood because it was the only way he could support his family. He took his fully formed compositional style and created the modern movie soundtrack.

Anyway – back to the music at hand. This is early Korngold. The textures are Brahmsian, but the harmony is more adventurous. The melodic line is Mahleresque, but more good-natured with less angst. There are many impressionistic touches – that Germanic impressionism you find in the music of Zemlinsky (Korngold’s teacher) and Schreker. Korngold’s stylistic watermarks are already in place: bold use of root-position triads and seventh chords rather than the more oblique inversions that grease the skids of chromatic harmony; exotic sonorities, with frequent use of harmonics and extreme registers; occasional over-the-top passagework in the strings and glissandi at the keyboard; extended sections of fast music that flirt with violence; and warm, lush melodies. Within a few years Korngold would add bitonality, polytonality, acerbic notes and extravagant sonic opulence to his palette. One of the variations in the slow movement of his (urgently recommended) Piano Quintet (Op.15) is all in artificial harmonics for the strings and glissandi on the piano with magical pedaling effects. His largest work, the three-act musical orgasm Das Wunder Der Heliane (written in his late 20s, completed in 1927) caps off a gargantuan orchestra with (effectively) eight keyboards: two glockenspiels, glockenklavier, celeste, harmonium, piano, organ and two harps. Even in his film scores, Korngold never again scored so lavishly.

The four-movement Trio betrays nothing of the composer’s young age. Some of the piano writing is a bit overemphatic, and the triads are pretty blunt, but many composers have made a life’s work of such traits. In the Violin Sonata (also four movements) these rough edges are already smoothed out, resulting in a major contribution to that already richly endowed genre. In the Violin Sonata, the vigorous scherzo is—or should be—the longest movement of the four.

Which brings me to the bad news. The Röhn Trio have hacked these two pieces to bits, for no understandable reason. In the Op.1 Trio, my favorite recording by a trio led by NY Phil concertmaster Glenn Dicterow takes 30 minutes, as does the Göbel-Trio; the Beaux Arts takes a more leisurely 33. The recording under review takes just over 22 minutes! About three of the eight lost minutes is from not taking the first movement exposition repeat which, along with another 16-bar cut in the recap makes that movement seem unusually hectic for a sonata-allegro.

The other five minutes is the real atrocity: at least ten different cuts of 4-17 bars each in the third and fourth movements. These cuts are utterly incompetent, turning nobly Brahmsian 8-bar phrases into lopsided four-bar statements, obliterating artful metrical transitions, and stitching together dissimilar musics like a practice dummy for Dr. Frankenstein. The rondo finale especially suffers from this hack job, most notably when Korngold reintroduces themes from the prior movements into a massive cyclical coda.

Actually, a small part of the timing difference is due to some faster tempos, which largely work well. Again, a pity that such good playing should be yoked to this editorial mutation.

In the Violin Sonata, Dicterow takes 38 minutes and an old Marco Polo with the wonderful Ilona Prunyi on piano takes about 36; the recording under review takes under 30! Again, massive cuts, especially to the scherzo, are the culprit. Here the cuts excise whole chunks of imaginative material, including a wonderful little spot in the scherzo that looks ahead to musical characterization of hallucinations. For this work, much as I treasure Dicterow’s idiomatic playing and utmost elegance of tone, I prefer the slightly quicker tempi in the Prunyi recording, whose violinist (András Kiss) is technically fine but not as refined as Dicterow.

The end result is that a program that takes 68:27 on Dicterow’s superb CD (alas, not currently in print) is slashed by 15 minutes to 53:10 here. And for what? There’s plenty of room on the CD for another piece, but what’s already there is so awful that it wouldn’t make a difference to me. No-one else makes any of these cuts, and they don’t appear in two different editions of the trio and the latest one of the Violin Sonata. If the Röhn Trio didn’t trust the material, they shouldn’t have recorded these pieces. And since this CD is a reissue, they shouldn’t have bothered to do that either.

By all means, hear this wonderful music! But go elsewhere to do it.


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