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The Wonder of Korngold

available at Amazon
Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane, A. Tomowa-Sintow, RSO Berlin, J. Mauceri

(re-released on April 10, 2007)
Decca 475 8271
Erich Korngold's second full-length opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), last came across the Ionarts radar because Renée Fleming recorded some excerpts on her Homage CD, reviewed earlier this year. (La Fleming will sing one selection from the opera, and another from Die Kathrin, at the National Symphony Orchestra's Season Opening Ball Concert on September 16.) One of the best things that you could do to celebrate the Korngold Year -- he died 50 years ago, on November 29, 1957 (the official sponsor is Jessica Duchen) -- is to acquire this excellent recording of Heliane (made in 1992), re-released at almost one-third of its regular price. Someone needs to buy a copy for Edo de Waart and whoever replaces Richard Gaddes (assuming they do not have one already, which is probably unlikely), to increase the chances that Santa Fe Opera will stage Heliane.

The historical background of the opera's creation, outlined capably in the liner notes by Brendan G. Carroll, is significant. Heliane was composed during the first two years of the composer's marriage, to a woman hated by his controlling parents. Korngold's father was a celebrated and ultra-conservative music critic in Vienna, the literal successor of Eduard Hanslick, and he attempted to use his son as a pawn in his critical tirade against atonal modernism. The libretto, Hans Müller's adaptation of a mystery play (Die Heilige) by Hans Kaltneker, could be interpreted as the struggle of Julius Korngold (the Ruler) and Erich Korngold (the Stranger) for the love of Music (Heliane). In the end, the Ruler's power is broken, and the Stranger and Heliane rise to eternal life, exalted in union. The angels that sing in chorus in the third act connect the lovers' salvation to the power of their love, a notable echo of the end of Mahler's Resurrection symphony (and the end of the Symphony of a Thousand, for that matter). Not surprisingly, Korngold dedicated the opera to his young wife.

available at Amazon
Jessica Duchen, Erich Wolfgang Korngold

(Phaidon Press, 1996)
It is a shame that Heliane was overshadowed by Krenek's brilliant Jonny Spielt Auf, premiered in the same year. Carroll's essay also explains how Julius Korngold's campaign against Jonny, overlapping uncomfortably with the rise of the National Socialist party, actually contributed to the negative reception of Heliane. The weak libretto, based admittedly on a wacky source, was no help either. Regular readers, however, know that I have a weakness for weird operas on dark, fairytale subjects -- Pelléas, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Susa's Transformations, Die ersten Menschen, to name just a few. The combination of an odd story and luscious score has moved Heliane quickly into that category, too.

This recording, the only one of the opera, features generally fine solo singing from Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Heliane), Hartmut Welker (Der Herrscher), and John David de Haan (Der Fremde). La Fleming's rendition of the famous Act II aria Ich ging zu ihm -- in which Heliane testifies, during the trial ordered by the jealous Ruler, that she showed the Stranger her hair and feet and then stripped naked in his cell -- is more pleasing than Tomowa-Sintow's (this is what Fleming will sing with the NSO next month). One hopes Fleming will have the chance to sing the role on the stage soon. The score calls for a Glockenklavier (a lower relative of the celesta), only one part of a diverse and clanging battery, all of it used to greatest effect in the transcendent third act, where Korngold flirts the most with outright atonality. John Mauceri holds the large forces, well honed, together impressively. Only the women's voices of the Rundfunk Chor Berlin are occasionally too strident for their angelic role.

Jessica Duchen will surely be covering the opera's much-anticipated U.K. premiere (we already know that she will give a pre-concert lecture), with Ionarts favorite Patricia Racette and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (November 21). Vladimir Jurowski will conduct.


tustuprof said...

Mr Downey,
You might be interested to know--if you don't already--that la Fleming sang the Heliane aria two weeks ago at the Proms in London. The performance--televised by the BBC--has already made it on to YouTube--together with the accompanying performace of Berg's Seven Early Songs! The Korngold performance was extraordinary-a 'thing of jaw-dropping beauty--as the Telegraph described it. Worth a look.

Jessica said...

You might also like to know that the Southbank Centre and the London Philharmonic are devoting considerable attention to Korngold this autumn - not only the all-star Heliane but several more concerts, including a film music programme, Nikolaj Znaider in the Violin Concerto, Anne Sofie von Otter with Bengt Forsberg and Pekka Kuusisto in a chamber music and song programme, the Nash Ensemble in a chamber programme, and a showing of Barrie Gavin's documentary with a round-table discussion to follow.

Massive thanks for the book plug, Charles. And yes, Fleming was a stunner at the Proms.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the great comments. Jessica, I am officially joining your crusade for Korngold recognition.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mr. Downey, for your warm review of "Das Wunder der Heliane." I listened to the recording out of curiosity, when it was first released, and I fell in love with it. The final moments of this music are exalted--what I am always hoping to find, what I am always waiting to hear. I realize that this intense music is not for everyone; but it exists for people such as myself, who deeply appreciate Korngold's achievement. I recently turned to this music again, as I had a particular need for it, and the time seemed right. It worked the necessary magic. Regards, Steven Golden