About this Recording
8.574008 - KORNGOLD, E.W.: Piano Trio, Op. 1 / String Sextet, Op. 10 (Spectrum Concerts Berlin)
English  German 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Piano Trio, Op. 1 • String Sextet, Op. 10


Works of a young master

Spectrum Concerts Berlin was established in 1988 with the aim of linking contemporary American chamber music with works of the European tradition. The design of its programmes was largely shaped by composers who—through sheer necessity—bridged the gap between Old and New World: that is to say, artists who had been forced into exile during the period of Nazi rule in Europe and found sanctuary in the United States. Banned music played a prominent role in Spectrum’s performances. Three album releases for the Naxos label provide ample evidence of the ensemble’s admirable advocacy of composers such as Ernst Toch. Toch was one of the most-played contemporary composers in the German-speaking world before the rise of the Nazis—and after liberation one of the most completely forgotten. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, just over nine years younger, suffered a similar fate: his chamber music has been a renewed focus of Spectrum Concerts Berlin’s attention since 2003.

Korngold was born on 29 May 1897 in the Moravian city of Brno, eight weeks after the death of Johannes Brahms. He grew up in Vienna from 1901, where he received his musical education: he studied composition with Robert Fuchs, a renowned teacher who in his own works followed the stylistic path set out by Brahms; with Alexander Zemlinsky, a pioneer of modernism to whom he had been recommended by Gustav Mahler; and with Hermann Graedener, of whom Zemlinsky wrote to his former pupil ‘Dear Erich! I hear you are studying with Graedener now. Is he making progress?’ Even in his earliest years, Korngold achieved great successes in all genres, far beyond the bounds of Vienna—from piano pieces and songs with piano to chamber and orchestral works and even full-length operas. When the Nazis extended their sphere of influence beyond German borders, he never returned from a working vacation in America, instead setting new standards in the genre of ‘utility music’ as a film composer—an area in which a great number of artists were seeking to make their name at the time.

Brendan G. Carroll gave his biography of Korngold the title The Last Prodigy. Anyone listening to the compositions in this album will be left in no doubt as to the veracity of this statement. From a biographical perspective, these works could be classed as juvenilia: the composer was 12 when he wrote his Piano Trio, Op. 1 and began planning his Sextet, Op. 10 at 17. Yet by any measure of musical quality, originality and mastery of his vocation these are genuine masterpieces, which make commensurate demands on the performer. The piano part in the Op. 1 Trio rivals any work in the chamber repertoire of the time—the years around the turn of the century—in its blend of full-bodied tone, brilliance, fluency and evocation of vocal lines. The violin and cello parts are no less impressive, whether in their delicacy of sound or their instrumental effects.

Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 (1909–10)

The Piano Trio was by no means the first work penned by the young Korngold. A handsome number of piano pieces, a piano sonata and a ballet pantomime—Der Schneemann (‘The Snowman’), which was premiered in Alexander Zemlinsky’s orchestration to thunderous applause at the Wiener Hofoper (‘Vienna Court Opera’, later the Staatsoper)—were all written earlier and given public performances, as with Der Schneemann. But a full-blown ‘Opus 1’ was effectively the official launchpad for a career as a composer, signalling the beginning of an oeuvre that would lay claim to a measure of importance in contemporary musical life—and indeed beyond. Korngold’s father, a respected, and subsequently more feared music critic, had the presence of mind to start the authoritative list of his son’s works not with small pieces such as Korngold’s character studies for piano, or with an example of his ‘utility music’, but with a work that demanded attention in its own right. Beethoven published piano trios as his Opus 1, Brahms’s first published chamber music work was a piano trio and his Opus 1 a piano sonata described by Robert Schumann as a ‘symphony in disguise’. A similar claim could be made of Korngold’s Opus 1: this work of approximately half an hour’s duration certainly has symphonic pretensions.

The trio of piano, violin and cello was used for a range of different purposes at the time of Korngold’s youth. This combination was used in sophisticated chamber music, while also being the line-up of choice for entertainment music in salons and cafes; orchestral and ensemble works were also arranged for household music-making with these three instruments. This multicoloured horizon with its different aspects emerges here and there in Korngold’s Opus 1. The themes which form the basis for the whole work are particularly expanded in the outer movements; they require all the tonal scope that the three players can afford them to blossom fully. This applies to both the broader and the inner differentiation of the individual parts. Although these themes are songlike and expressive—like the secondary idea in the first movement and the melodic figurations that emerge in the third, slow movement—they are forged from the instruments and exploit their expressive capabilities to the full. The cheerful self-assurance that can be heard from the opening theme of the first movement, with its surges of sound and energetic leaping rhythms, recalls Richard Strauss, just as several passages in the Scherzo call to mind his Eulenspiegel-like pranks with their mischievous humour. The harmonic refinement so often cultivated by French composers in particular is pushed so far by Korngold, in the Trio that follows the Scherzo and in the slow movement, that delight in the resulting array of tonal colours overwhelms any craving for a tonal centre. Korngold of course plays with traditional Viennese forms such as the waltz, but all the while teetering provocatively at the very edge of traditional musical logic. At the same time he further reinforces that tradition through his use of the established four-movement form, which he follows and yet reinvents, in his own idiosyncratic way.

Korngold composed his Piano Trio between December 1909 and April 1910, completing it before his 13th birthday. At the time he was studying with Alexander Zemlinsky, the teacher who probably had the most lasting influence on him, offering him encouragement and education in all relevant aspects of music, with a watchful eye for the needs of a prodigy. The first performance of the Trio was given on 10 November 1910 in Munich by the court pianist Heinrich Schwartz and his ensemble. Julius Korngold, who had made as many enemies as friends in Vienna with his acid-tongued reviews, preferred to give premieres outside the capital, lest he expose his son to retaliation from his enemies. The very best performers were at hand for the work’s Vienna and Berlin premieres: Bruno Walter, who as a conductor was Gustav Mahler’s assistant at Vienna’s Hofoper till 1907, was at the piano. The violin part was taken by Arnold Rosé, Mahler’s brother-in-law, leader of the Hofoper orchestra and of the Vienna Philharmonic as well as first violinist of a distinguished quartet that brought numerous new works to the general public. Friedrich Buxbaum, first cellist with the Hofoper orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic and a member of the Rosé Quartet, played the cello. All three, like Korngold, would later fall victim to Nazi persecution: Bruno Walter emigrated from Austria in 1938, settling first in Switzerland and then in the United States in 1939, while Rosé and Buxbaum went straight to Britain after the Anschluss with Austria, where they made their home.

String Sextet in D major, Op. 10 (1914–16)

The expanded Rosé Quartet also gave the premiere of the Sextet, Op. 10, on which Korngold began work in the summer of 1914, almost five years after his Piano Trio, Op. 1. He composed it alongside his first opera Der Ring des Polykrates and most notably the one-act tragedy Violanta, finishing it in December 1916. Even as a very young man Korngold, whose ideas seemed to come to him in an access of inspiration when improvising at the piano, always took as much time as he needed when writing out the scores of his larger, more complex works, and never rushed. His scores therefore reveal a wealth of meticulous nuance, painstakingly fleshed out with evocative detail and with regard to their formal proportions. As with the earlier Trio, he took the traditional four-movement form as the basis for his Sextet, again interpreting it in his own individual way. In the process he followed the two Brahms sextets, as he did with the fundamentally lyrical character of the opening movement, consciously not adopting the approach taken by Arnold Schoenberg 15 years earlier with his string sextet Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), which applied Liszt’s conception of the tone poem to chamber music.

At the same time elements of musical theatre—already present in Op. 1 in the flexibility of its musical characterisations—play a significant role in the dramatic composition of the Sextet. The opening bars, which suggest a possible fugue, without going on to construct one, take on a double function in the course of the first movement. On one hand they serve as the principal generative component of a musical fabric into which the two dominant themes are interwoven—and from whose background they stand out. The brief introduction thus provides a foretaste of the harmonics to come and their shifts between major and minor, which are then broadened to construct audacious chord formations and sequences; it seems intended to set the musical tone. On the other hand these opening bars repeatedly function as a portal, drawing attention towards a new musical ‘stage’; in this sense they seem to set out the work’s structure.

Both of the first movement’s themes are lyrical in nature. The shift from the first to the second is a supreme feat of musical transition worthy of Alban Berg. The first theme in particular seems to have the potential for audacious surges of sound, which then reappear, apparently blended in with the second. This recalls another earlier work, the Sinfonietta, Op. 5, both in tonality and in character. Korngold enjoyed returning to powerful musical ideas in varied forms, giving them new meaning in new, modified contexts. In comparison to the Piano Trio, he has further developed his skill of creating memorable yet still complex themes that attain their full effect only with the cooperation of all the performers—not simply as a principal line with background accompaniment. The Sextet’s musical structure is—as Theodor Adorno observed in the case of Mahler’s late works—polyphonic throughout. The variations, expansions and reductions of the themes—to the point where they are merely hinted at—and the shifts of musical ideas between foreground and background create a drama that plays out exclusively in musical configurations.

Korngold begins the second, slow movement with an expansive flashback to the introduction to the first. The essence of the rocking figures and the shifts between major and minor are set out from the beginning, with almost Mahlerian clarity, as if to represent the official stamp of Korngold’s style. From this recollection of the beginning of the work the composer goes on to unfurl an intimate vocal scene without words; the proximity to the theatre is palpable, audible. Korngold wrote the third movement as a homage to Vienna and its music; he makes no more effort to conceal his fondness for the music of Johann Strauss than he did in the Piano Trio. In the rapid, brilliant last dance of the Finale we hear repeated snatches of the earlier movements—more in the cadences used than in directly tangible thematic figures. As on the operatic stage, albeit in an entirely different form, this lieto fine offers us an ensemble bringing together all the work’s important protagonists.

Habakuk Traber
English translation: Saul Lipetz

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