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CDs

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Sämtliche Lieder (Complete Songs)

Konrad Jarnot/Reinild Mees/Adrianne Pieczonka
***** Capriccio Records C5252 (Double CD)

Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is probably best known today as the composer of the opera Die tote Stadt (1920) or possibly as the progenitor of the “Hollywood Sound” through his pioneering film scores, composed in Hollywood while exiled from Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It may come as a surprise to some therefore ,that he also produced a significant amount of chamber music with a fine body of highly individual songs throughout his career, most of which are gathered together on this fine new release, with a number receiving world premiere recordings.

A celebrated child prodigy composer, Korngold wrote songs from the beginning. The earliest surviving example – Der Knabe und das Veilchen - dates from early 1905 when Korngold was just seven years old and is recorded here for the first time, together with Kleiner Wunsch from 1907. Both reveal the nascent style of the mature composer and it is quite remarkable that, even in these relatively simple, early songs, both composed before his first proper composition lessons had even begun, he already sounds like Korngold. No other prodigy known to me speaks with such a personal voice from the outset. It is what sets him apart from all other child composers.

A major highlight of this recorded anthology is the large group of early Eichendorff lieder, which Korngold began aged 13 in late 1910 as a gift for his father’s birthday on December 24th 1911, and inscribed: ‘So Gott und Papa wills’ (If God and Papa allows). Papa was the much-feared critic, Julius Korngold and clearly did not “allow” as the songs were never published in this form. Korngold returned to them in 1913, selecting three – Schneeglöckchen, Das Ständchen and Nachtwanderer – and adding three others, Liebesbriefchen, Das Heldengrab am Pruth and Sommer – for his Sechs Einfache Lieder Opus 9 in 1916. Sommer (one of Korngold’s most beautiful musical ideas) is presented here both in its original version and in an alternate, earlier and slightly different setting. Korngold published a much more ambitious cycle in 1921 – the Vier Lieder des Abschieds Opus 14, inspired by the profound loss of life in the Great War. The cycle had its roots when in 1915, Korngold wrote the sweetly nostalgic Österreichisches Soldatenabschiedslied to his own text and here receiving its world premiere recording. In 1919, he asked the poet Ernst Lothar (brother of writer Hans Müller, who had supplied the libretto for Korngold’s second opera Violanta in 1914) to write a new text – Gefasster Abschied (Serene Farewell) and then added three further songs. He later orchestrated and recorded them (with Rosette Anday, in 1924). They are undoubtedly his finest lieder, worthy of comparison with Mahler.

Korngold finished Opus 14, just as he was completing the aforementioned opera Die tote Stadt which brought him international fame and shares a similar theme of lost love through death. This opera is rapidly becoming a repertoire piece once again with numerous new productions every season: there are four already announced for 2016. The score contains two fine lyric pauses in the action, and both arias (among his most popular compositions) - the much recorded, sublime Mariettas Lied and the luscious Pierrots Tanzlied, - are included here, even though they are not lieder, in the strict definition of the term.

The anthology continues in chronology with the extremely demanding Drei Lieder Opus 18 (1924-6), described by Korngold as “character studies” for his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane which he was writing simultaneously. In 1927, after completing Heliane, Korngold began to compose a further collection, Drei Lieder Opus 22, marking a decided return to his lyrical style, especially the first - Was Du Mir Bist? (What you mean to me) - one of his most beautiful melodies, written in the highly chromatic key of F# Major.

The cycle Unvergänglichkeit (The Eternal) Opus 27 dates from the summer of 1933 while the Shakespeare lieder (Opus 29 and 31) date from the late 1930s, written for various theatre productions by Max Reinhardt, with whom Korngold collaborated many times and who was responsible for bringing him to Hollywood in 1934. These were his first songs set to English texts and are highly effective. Korngold composed Fünf Lieder Opus 38 (published 1950) entirely in America, and they were dedicated to Maria Jeritza, the legendary diva who sang the main roles in his operas Violanta and Die tote Stadt to telling effect.

Korngold’s final song Sonett für Wien Opus 41, was composed in 1951, as a tribute to Vienna, the city of Korngold's youth, then in ruins after the war. The setting is heroic, in a free, asymmetrical form closely fitted to the text, while its wide melodic intervals are extremely demanding; at one point, the singer must navigate an upward leap of an eleventh! The most remarkable thing however, is that it began life, not as a song, but as the exuberant overture to his penultimate film - Escape Me Never. (1946). It was first performed October 17 1954 in Vienna, by Hilde R?ssl-Majdan with the composer at the piano, in a broadcast concert, the tape of which sadly appears to be lost.

A number of individual songs, only recently published, complete this extensive recording. Of these, perhaps the two most significant are the charming waltz song Die Gansleber im Haus Duschnitz (1919), written following a dinner party, at which was served a fine goose-liver pate and the Kaiserin Zita Hymne, originally conceived for full orchestra, organ, mixed chorus, a children’s choir of 250 voices and soprano solo, and written at the end of 1916, for the accession of the Empress Zita to the Hapsburg throne, following the death of Franz Josef. It was first performed at Schönbrunn Palace on 9 May 1917 in her presence, conducted by Korngold. Sadly, the piano score is all that survives of this grandiose work. The orchestral materials vanished after its last known performance in February 1918 and, with the collapse of the monarchy, its full score was never published.

Twenty years later, in Hollywood, Korngold remembered the piece while composing his elaborate film score for the story of another Queen, Elizabeth I of England for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) which starred Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. He incorporated part of the Zita Hymne in the grand ceremonial overture to this film, which gives some indication as to how it may have sounded. It has a typically Korngoldian theme of ascending fourths and this rare example of Korngoldian patriotism here, finally receives its world premiere recording.

The performances on this most welcome, extremely vivid, new recording make a strong and convincing case for Korngold's richly varied lieder. The baritone Konrad Jarnot, a singer of luxuriant tone and presence, is ably supported by the fine Dutch pianist Reinild Mees in most of the songs, in virile, idiomatic interpretations. Canadian soprano Adrianne Piezonka offers a charming contrast, singing the few songs that are not within Mr Jarnot's fach. The voices are not too closely recorded, and the piano is well placed, with Korngold's often densely chromatic writing always well articulated.

The album claims to offer Korngold's complete songs but this is not strictly correct. Two notable omissions are the Lied des Balthasar from the incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing Opus 11 (1918) and Tomorrow Opus 33 (1942) that was written for the film The Constant Nymph, the first of Korngold's cinematic works he deemed worthy of an opus number.

Full texts of all the songs are provided but regrettably without English translation, though most of these can be found online. This comprehensive recording is a most welcome addition to the ever growing discography of Korngold's music and will do much to revive interest in his songs, which are still unjustifiably neglected.

Brendan G. Carroll

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