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Adrian Edwards
Gramophone, November 2011

The attractive young voices of soprano Britta Stallmeister and baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus fall easily on the ear and their interpretations offer many perceptive and poetic insights, as do the deft piano parts that are much more than mere adornments.

It’s a real pleasure to hear the youthful baritone of Schenker-Primus in the Eichendorff settings, an astonishing achievement from the young Korngold. His singing is characterised by a smooth, even tone throughout the range and he interprets the changing moods in these adventuresome settings with great dexterity.

To read the complete review, please visit Gramophone online.

Bill White
Fanfare, September 2011

By now, Naxos must have accumulated the most comprehensive catalog of classical music of any of the major recording companies in its vaults, although the company has lately been dropping some of its earlier titles. Now, it is delving into another heretofore relatively neglected area with the complete songs of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the musical wunderkind better known for his movie scores, operas, and a few major orchestral pieces. This is disc 1, which takes us through op. 31 with the addition of four posthumously published songs. Based on the rather sketchy information available on the subject it appears there are only a few more songs to be recorded after the 36 presented here. It will be interesting to see what Naxos will do to fill up disc 2; it always seems to provide discs of full measure.

A problem with presenting a complete set of any oeuvre is including the chaff with the wheat, or to perpetuate the bad pun associated with this composer, the korn with the gold. Here there is little or no chaff; all the songs are serious efforts, technically adept, and match musical mood to the words of the poetry. Despite the praise of the writer of the booklet notes, Cornelius Bauer, I find very little of real distinction here, either, but then Korngold’s songs may be an acquired taste. Fifteen of the songs were composed when Korngold was a youth of 13 and 14, no less competent for that, but clearly the boy wonder had been listening to the songs of Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Hans Pfitzner. Nine of the songs of the composer’s maturity, Songs of the Clown and op. 31, are in English set to the poetry of William Shakespeare; the remainder are settings of Germanic poets. Songs were not Korngold’s major preoccupation after being forced to leave Austria due to the Nazi menace; large-scale works that paid well were. So Korngold landed in Hollywood writing film scores, the first well-known composer to work there. Most of these songs were composed after the completion of major works, film or orchestral, as if the composer needed a change of pace or a palate-cleansing before returning to the fray.

The songs on this disc are sung by Britta Stallmeister, a pretty well-known German lyric soprano who has enjoyed an extensive association with the Frankfurt Opera, and baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus, also a German native and associated with the German National Theater of Weimar. Unless Korngold wrote all of his early works for baritone and his mature works for soprano, there is some serious octave switching going on here. The recordings were made in two different sessions with the same pianist, Klaus Simon, also a conductor and the man in charge of the Korngold songs project. The songs themselves, especially the later ones, are rather simple in structure and undemanding of the voice, and they are rendered pretty well here by the two German singers. Stallmeister’s Renaissance English is good in the Shakespeare works.

Texts and translations are available on the Naxos website. Although somewhat obscure, these songs do occasionally turn up on recital discs. Recently, Sarah Connolly, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Angelika Kirchschlager have recorded some of them, but it is also good to have them all together on one set. If you are a completist or enjoy Naxos bargain prices by all means buy this recording.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, July 2011

One of the more rewarding musical developments of recent times has been the revival of interest in Korngold’s non-filmic œuvre. Of the operas the classic Leinsdorf recording of Die Tote Stadt stood alone for years until Decca’s Entartete Musik series resurrected Das Wunder der Heliane in 1992. Since then there have been a number of high-profile versions of the Symphony in F and fine discs of the Piano Concerto from Howard Shelley and Marc-André Hamelin. As for that evergreen, the Violin Concerto, ArkivMusic lists around 28 versions, among them a top-notch one from Philippe Quint on Naxos.

This volume of songs—the first in a projected series—may stand out in a deserted field, but it still faces formidable competition from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg.

Curiously, Naxos have chosen to start this disc with Korngold’s middle and later songs. Drei Lieder opens with the aching loveliness of ‘Was Du mir bist’, given here in a rather cool, arm’s-length performance by German soprano Britta Stallmeister. She has a habit of floating her high notes in a way that can sound mannered, and as the cycle progressed I did long for more warmth and weight. Also, she has a tendency to swoop and scoop—in ‘Welt ist stille eingeschlafen’, for instance—which is rather distracting. As for the five songs of Unvergänglichkeit, there’s a bitter-sweet quality to the piano writing that surely recalls the strange, half-lit milieu of Die tote Stadt, written thirteen years earlier.

Klaus Simon is a discreet accompanist, the piano well recorded and balanced. Indeed, perspectives are generally fine throughout. And while I enjoyed Unvergänglichkeit I just could not warm to Stallmeister’s glacial tones or rid myself of the sense that, despite her soaring lines, she just doesn’t have a great deal in reserve. That said, she thaws a little in the songs from Twelfth Night and the Bardic settings of Vier Lieder, all sung in English. Diction isn’t terribly clear, but there are welcome flashes of wit in both the vocal and piano parts.

Halfway through and I found myself wool-gathering. True, the song isn’t central to Korngold’s output and I really can’t agree with Cornelius Bauer in his liner-notes, when he asserts that had Korngold been born thirty years earlier his vocal settings would have rivalled those of Mahler and Strauss. No, there’s a strangely dated feel to some of Korngold’s later songs—akin to Thomas Hardy’s later fiction, perhaps—that one just doesn’t feel with the lieder of Mahler or Strauss. And while there are some nuggets to be found in these works, there simply aren’t enough for me; moreover, Stallmeister doesn’t have the vocal or dramatic resources to make them shine.

That said, there’s no denying the talents of the young Korngold, whose early output of 1911–1913 is remarkably assured for one so young. Who else but a prodigy would dare to set poems by the great Eichendorff, these Op. 5 songs bound and presented to the composer’s unyielding father? There’s a vigour and clarity to the piano writing that’s most appealing—just sample ‘Das Ständchen’—while ‘Winternacht’ is darkly Schubertian. The baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus has a pleasing range and smoothness of line; he’s nimble in ‘Das Mädchen’ and wonderfully inward in ‘Abendlandschaft’.

These early songs are altogether more engaging and, to my ears at least, they seem less brittle than the later ones. Much of the credit for that goes to Schenker-Primus; even under pressure, as in ‘Die Sperlinge’, his voice has a youthful ring and reach that suits these songs very well. And in ‘Vom Berge’ there’s another of those goose-bump moments, the equivocal harmonies recalling Die tote Stadt once more. The piano is bit too prominent, perhaps, but really there’s little to criticise here. As always, Klaus Simon is a characterful accompanist; indeed, his and Schenker-Primus’s partnership is an altogether more engaging—and insightful—one than that between Simon and Stallmeister.

The recital ends with three ‘simple songs’ from Korngold’s Op. 9 and four stand-alone, posthumous ones, all feelingly sung by this most resourceful of baritones. And ‘simple’ they aren’t, the young composer sounding surprisingly adventurous at times; just listen to how the piano catches the genial warmth of ‘Sommer’, or how both artists respond to the gentle radiance of ‘Vesper’.

Despite my reservations about Stallmeister’s somewhat detached vocal style—and the uneven quality of Korngold’s later settings—this is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue. Sung texts aren’t provided, but they’re easily downloaded from the Naxos website.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, June 2011

This is the first volume of what is expected to be a complete collection of the songs of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the compositional wunderkind, the young prodigy whose talent impressed Mahler, D’Albert, Reger, Puccini, Saint-Saëns, and Richard Strauss and many other musical luminaries.

This disc includes examples from his early years up until the Shakespearean songs of his Hollywood years when his reputation as a serious composer plummeted (‘more corn than gold’ was the demoralising wisecrack). Reassessment came in his centenary year, 1997, with the then current re-emergence and regained respect for tonal music.

The baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus illuminates the early songs of Opp.5 and 9 composed when Korngold was only 13–14 years old. It seems incredible now that Erich’s father, the stern Viennese critic, should scorn them believing the songs to have no virtue and the texts by Eichendorff to be of little merit. In fact Korngold’s Op. 5 became his Sinfonietta for orchestra and it was some years before the songs were published. Accordingly, Korngold’s Op. 5 songs were cheekily given a subtitle ‘if God and Father so wish’. The songs show an astonishing grasp of the demands of the genre from one so young; they demonstrate an extraordinary musicality and sensitivity.

Schenker-Primus, who sings these early songs, has a most attractive timbre, his diction well-nigh perfect, so too is his control and sculpting of the contours of these songs coupled with a high expressive art. There is so much to admire here. There is the exuberant joyfulness and romantic charm of ‘Ständchen’; the delicate beauty of ‘Snowdrops’; the dark intensity of ‘Night Wanderer’ described by more than one commentator as Korngold’s ‘Erlkönig, the impressionistic piano part of ‘Winter Night’ giving a remarkably evocative picture of wintry desolation; and the magnificent melancholy of ‘From the Mountain’.

Equally delightful, if not more so, are the Op. 9 Songs Nos. 4 to 6 included here. The ‘Little Love letter’, inspired by one of Korngold’s young sweethearts, Mitzi Kolisch, has a lovely memorable melody and the despairing song of lost love that is ‘The Hero’s Grave at Pruth’ has an extraordinarily eerie atmosphere, while the rippling beauty of ‘Summer’ has another haunting melody.

Of the ‘Four Posthumous Songs’ ‘Vespers’ with its insistent tolling of bells in the piano part makes for a trenchant accompaniment culminating in their most mournful and almost dissonant chimes at the lines—“What is it about the bells today that makes me want to cry? The bells, which mean that my life is dead!” The concluding ‘The Genius’ forms an exuberant and cheeky finale.

Britta Stallmeister sings with enthusiasm and animation the later songs in this collection. There is the romantic bliss of ‘The World Has Gone to Sleep’—“my love, I think of you…I seek you in the stars;” from Op. 22. There is the gorgeous melody that is ‘Immortality’; the strongly pictorial piano part of ‘The Rushing Little Stream’, the endearing simplicity of ‘The Sleeping Child’ and the darkly dramatic ‘Stronger than Death’ mitigated only at the final lines “the power of love is stronger even than death”—all from Op. 27.

Stallmeister’s command of English is impressive in the nine Shakespearean songs. She relishes the opportunities to colour her voice to the five Clown songs from Twelfth Night. The cheekiness of ‘O mistress mine’ is delivered knowingly—film fans will remember Olivia de Havilland singing this tauntingly to Bette Davis as the ageing Queen in Elizabeth and Essex. She invests taunting irony in ‘For the rain, it raineth every day’. Of the Four Songs, ‘Desdemona’s Song’ features another of Korngold’s beautifully poignant melodies and is sung very affectingly here. By contrast, ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘When birds do sing’ are sunny, joyful and tuneful celebrations.

Klaus Simon provides consistently non-intrusive but illuminating accompaniments and Cornelius Bauer’s helpful notes complete a very attractive programme. The whisper is that the second CD in this series is even better.

A delightful programme comprising the lesser-known Korngold songs delivered to perfection.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Strange how people like to pigeonhole composers into eras and then become disorientated when they arrive at the music of Erich Korngold. Even the writer of the programme note with this new release is disorientated when he comments that if Korngold had been writing at the same time as Richard Strauss and Pfitzner ‘he would probably have become one of its most important figures’. Well Korngold was, of course, composing this first group of songs when Strauss still had thirteen operas to compose and Pfitzner’s was thinking about writing his famous opera, Palestrina. The three composers eventually died within eight years of one another. It is sad even in a new recording how Korngold is misrepresented. Of course the music establishment never forgave him for ‘selling himself’ to Hollywood, but he had been a precociously gifted young men, composing major scores while still a teenager. The twelve earliest songs date from the period 1910–1911 and were titled So Gott und Papa will (If God and Father so wish), and were originally given the opus number 5. His father didn’t ‘so wish’ and prevented publication for reasons unknown. By any standard they are a fine group, the piano part far from a simple accompaniment. The Sechs Einfache Lieder (Six Simple Songs)—of which we have the last three—came five years later. Then we move to songs composed between 1928 and 1941 where Strauss and Korngold occupy much the same ground, Drei Lieder and Unverganglichkeit (Immortality) leading to two gorgeous groups of songs to words by Shakespeare. Singing voices are a very personal thing, and I think of these songs performed by voices that spin out high phrases. The young Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau would have been perfect, but Britta Stallmeister and Uwe Schenker-Primus prove good servants to the music with Klaus Simon the admirable pianist. Well balanced sound.

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