Today is Korngold's 119th Birthday, so to go along with the birthday tribute over on Forbes.com as well as the chapter in Surprised by Beauty 2, I’ve put together a list of what I think are essential (and non-essential, but beautiful) Korngold works – and my favorite recordings thereof:
Let’s start with the perennial favorite (and favorite to sneer at):
Concerto for Violin op.35(+ Much Ado about Nothing Suite, op.11 & Barber Violin Concerto) with Gil Shaham and André Previn (also contains the Barber Violin Concerto), LSO Deutsche Grammophon 439886
Two great romantic violin concertos and played with utmost mastery and beauty. Unlike on his later recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter (coupled with an unattractively played Tchaikovsky concerto), Previn neither plays up the film music aspect (much to the performance’s benefit), nor does Shaham self-consciously struggle against its Hollywood-ring (as does Heifetz, for example). It remains the top choice despite increasingly stiff and able competition from a crop of young violinists who are discovering Korngold for themselves.
Das Wunder der HelianeBerlin RSO, under John Mauceri – Decca 829402
Das Wunder der Heliane with John Mauceri conducting. For any lover of 19th and 20th century opera, this really is a must-have. (I have written about it here before, as has Charles, and it made my Best-of-2007 list.)
Symphony in F-sharpPhiladelphia Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst
Curiously the Symphony – dedicated to F.D. Roosevelt – was broadcast before it was premiered in concert: it was upon Rudolf Kempe and the Munich Philharmonic to do the latter, and that’s also where the first recording of the work comes from. Despite a few cut bars, it’s the rawest and most exciting reading, worthy to pick up if you can find it at a reasonable price, used (on Varese Sarabande). The best modern recording of this Symphony certainly at EMI’s budget price comes from Franz Welser-Möst. This is sumptuousness become manifest. Barbara Hendricks’s “Simple Songs”, op.9 (4 out of 6) and Marietta’s famous aria from Die Tote Stadt are more than just fillers.
Piano Concerto for the left hand(+ Joseph Marx Piano Concerto), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), BBC Scottish Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä
There really isn’t a recording to challenge Hamelin’s account. If the Violin concerto could be thought of Korngold’s Rosenkavalier, the Piano concerto would be his Salome (Gary Graffman). The coupling with the deliciously über-romantic, gushing Marx on Hyperion’s volume 18 of their Romantic Piano Concerto series is ideal.
Cello Concerto(+Ernest Bloch Schelomo, Berthold Goldschmidt Cello Concerto ) Julian Steckel (cello), Rheinische Philharmonie State Orchestra (Koblenz), Daniel Raiskin – Cavi Music 8553223
Marvelously played and programmed, this combines three concertos that all belong in Surprised by Beauty—although only this one has made it yet. (Perhaps a case for “Surprised by Beauty 3”!). Korngold culled and expanded the Cello Concerto from a sequence he wrote for the Bette Davis film Deception in which a cello concerto features. For a bit of American music trivia: Korngold’s Cello Concerto was premiered by the Hollywood String Quartet’s Eleanor Slatkin – while she was pregnant with Leonard Slatkin’s little brother Fred Zlotkin. The two brothers have even recorded the work – for a free-be disc that came with the BBC Music Magazine many moons ago.
Sextet op.10(+ Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht), Raphael Ensemble – Hyperion 66425, Helios 55466
This disc (Roger Tapping plays the viola on it, by the way) also contains Schoenberg’s lovely Verklärte Nacht. That makes for two of the most wonderful chamber works from that period from composers that would go into such different directions, musically, if not geographically. If you have already been seduced by Korngold, the camerata freden’s recording (Tacet 198) should be an obvious addition to the collection: They a tenacity to these works that makes both words more interesting listening, but maybe less inviting by eschewing superficial beauty for depth.
Suite for Piano left hand and Strings op.23(+ Franz Schmidt, Left Hand Piano Quintet)
Leon Fleisher (piano), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Jamie Laredo, Joseph Silverstein (violins) – Sony 48253
The all-star cast – central among them Fleisher, a pianist who understood what being limited to the left hand meant like no other since commissioning pianist Paul Wittgenstein – tends to these rarely performed works with great care and passion.
The Sea Hawkand other excerpts
National Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Gerhardt – RCA Victor Gold Seal 7890
The Sea Hawk and other classic film scores in excerpts on a magnificent recording with Gerhardt was long difficult to find but has been re-issued in 2010 and is worth seeking out. If you want to hear the very complete music of Sea Hawk, go with William Stromberg’s very fine Naxos recording.
Complete Piano SonatasMichael Schäfer (piano) – Profil Hänssler 4083
The teenage work that is the Second Sonata combines Viennese fin de siècle and intellectualism in ways one would think impossible coming from a boy of 13.
Sursum Corda, SinfoniettaBBC Philharmonic, Matthias Bamert (conductor) – Chandos Classics 10432x
These are two early symphonic works and they are tremendous achievements, rivaling the Symphony for bristling romanticism. Bamert and his forces revel in every aspect of it. In Chandos’ very welcome series of Korngold re-issues, this one should probably rank the highest.