Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Authentic Korngold to raise the Proms roof

Last Saturday night, I left the Royal Albert Hall after the debut Prom of the Sinfonia of London and started down the slippery slope to South Kensington tube station. Moments later I stopped, because I'd realised I was, rather uncharacteristically, shaking all over. 

What induced this state was an extraordinary concert by an orchestra that hasn’t performed for more than 60 years, reconvened and conducted by John Wilson. Their programme was of works that can thrill and terrify in equal measure: Johann Strauss, Berg, Ravel’s La Valse, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp.

John Wilson conducting the Sinfonia of London
photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


Thirty-five years after I first fell in love with Korngold’s music, 30 after seeing with horror how loathed it was in certain quarters of the music world, and a quarter-century since my compact biography of him was published, I’d finally witnessed his Symphony – a tragedy-laden, post-war howl of pain – receive the performance it deserves. The Times review has now gone the whole way, hailing it as a masterpiece.


The Symphony was completed in 1952 (it took him a while) and premiered on Austrian radio in 1954. The short version of the story is that it wasn’t successful. Then Mitropoulos wanted to perform it - he called it ‘the perfect modern work’ – but died before he could do so. It wasn’t played in concert until 1972, in Munich, under Rudolf Kempe. 


Saturday wasn’t the first time it’s been performed in the UK, far from it, but it’s the first time that I have heard it sound as it can and should. Such was Wilson’s hold on its architecture that there was no mistaking its staircases and supporting walls, nor any chance of them succumbing to the rising damp of technical imprecision. His scherzo was fast, light-footed and ferocious as an orchestral cheetah, the adagio as carvernous and profound as the catacombs; and his hand-picked performers were virtuosi enough to carry off a sort of orchestral Olympic gold (a sample: Adam Walker on first flute, Juliana Koch on first oboe, Thomas Gould playing no. 3 first violin, Peter Moore as first trombone; the list carries on).



So easy to love?


The Symphony is not an easy work to love. No warm, cuddly, Czech-Viennese Korngold here, guzzling fine goose-liver or chocolate cake. It’s totally of its time and place: the structures of the classic symphonists, the expected playing standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, but also the emotional condition of someone torn from his whole world and flung seven thousand miles around the globe into a new life where material success never once meant real happiness. Someone struggling to save his family and friends, witnessing destruction on an unimaginable scale. Someone bewildered to find himself facing, in turn, racial prejudice, survival necessity and artistic snobbery; someone who’d watched everything he had been born into swept away forever by World War II. 


The music is bitter, sometimes furious, sometimes ironic, sardonic or surreal, its malleable tonal centre (F sharp doesn’t mean F sharp major – anything but) with more than one toe in German expressionism. Occasionally a big punchy motif – try the horn call in the scherzo’s trio – prefigures the sounds of John Williams, like the New York skyline glinting into view over a choppy ocean. It’s three parts Fritz Lang to one part Steven Spielberg. It is not nostalgic or schmalzy in any way, shape or form, even when the emotion knocks you for six. You may not like it; it’s not necessarily meant to be likeable. But at least if you still don’t like it after you heard this performance – or the award-winning CD that the SoL and Wilson have made – you can rest assured that you’ve given it a fair try and are responding to the work, and not just to the way it was played.


So what went right at the Prom that doesn’t usually? And what’s gone wrong before?



The trouble with Korngold


The first trouble with Korngold is that his music is so damnably difficult to play. Growing up as a child prodigy in Vienna, he was accustomed to astronomically high standards. He had the ear of Mahler at nine and Strauss by 15 (until his critic father ruined that for him). He was surrounded by the crème-de-la-crème of Europe’s great musicians and knew he didn’t need to make their lives easier. He wrote a violin sonata for Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel when he was 14, a one-act opera (Violanta) for Maria Jeritza at 16-17, Die tote Stadt for Jeritza and Richard Tauber, premiered when he was 23. Conductors? He expected someone on the level of his neighbour, Bruno Walter. Frankly, if we give him instead – er, one of a few I can think of, we’re asking for trouble. 

Marietta's Lute Song from Die tote Stadt


Korngold is, moreover, a control freak: often he writes out the rubato exactly as he wants it to sound. I once counted the changes of time signature in the slow movement of his Piano Quintet – I think there were 57. Or possibly just 54. If you play what he writes, you provide the sound he wants. The audience hears a flexible, satiny, well-oiled ebb and flow that breathes and rests and intensifies. The musicians, though, are probably breaking quite a sweat over the mathematical exactitude that such freedom entails. 


They may also be doing their nut over poorly-prepared parts. A new complete Korngold edition is mercifully underway now, but previously some of the trouble with e.g. Heliane has been that the originals were so badly presented. There was even a theory that in the 1920s there may have been deliberate sabotage by an (or some) anti-semite(s) who made the music as illegible as possible and even mis-wrote the then very famous composer’s name as Kornfeld. (They did. I’ve seen it.)


Once you can read what’s on the page, there’s another issue. This music is full of expression and feeling. Recognising this, some musicians, with the best of intentions, ladle on still more of it in great hot-caramel dollops. If you do that, it overbalances, goes soggy in the centre, loses momentum, loses direction, and sometimes falls to bits. It turns into the schmalz that people came to expect it to be because they know Korngold ended up in Hollywood - but it is not, it was never meant to be, and if it sounds that way, something is very wrong. As the composer’s father, the critic Julius Korngold, wrote at the start of the 20th century, the ‘modern’ was all about expression. In 1910 his son was therefore as modern as modern could be. Hollywood Schmollywood. I can’t put it better than John Wilson himself, who said to me in an interview: ‘The last thing you want to do with Korngold is pour chocolate sauce all over it.’ 


A few years ago I wrote a ‘Building a Library’ article for BBC Music Magazine about the Beethoven ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. I listened to around 50 recordings, but found that a surprising number of pianists played it reverentially, every note a precious gem wrapped carefully in cotton wool. The one I loved the most played it, instead, like a huge, wise, quirky, brilliant, firebreathing dragon awakening (it was Peter Serkin on a fortepiano). How many others, I wondered, were playing not the music, but their expectations of it? Their attitude towards the music, one of reverence and fear? 


Korngold’s music has been open season for this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Exploring recordings of the Korngold Violin Concerto for Radio 3’s equivalent feature (some years ago) it sounded much as if some of the artists, thinking the music is chocolate sauce, thought they should pour on even more. Swooning is expected, schmalz encouraged: that old Hollywood prejudice hangs over performers who have probably never even seen the films with Korngold scores – let alone heard him conducting on the soundtracks, a great clue to his genuine style, which is dynamic and sweeping enough to whoosh you clear off your chair. So, too is the recording of Heifetz in the Violin Concerto, live in Carnegie Hall, 1947: no swooping or splurging, but virtuosic, eloquent, heroic, idealistic. 


Interpretations can end up skewed, sometimes for the sake of received opinion, and if the music isn’t well known, then if it is poorly delivered nobody knows any better. Without top-notch performances, the impression is given that the music isn’t good, not that the playing might perhaps be responsible. This is quite often the fate of composers who are being rediscovered. In many instances, it’s only when they have come on to the radar strongly enough that the top musicians – or their record companies – will jump in and do them justice. 


The quantity of vicious abuse I’ve seen directed at Korngold over the last three or four decades is mind-boggling. But now, here’s a really great performance of the Symphony and suddenly... The Times critic, Rebecca Franks, writes:

It emerged here as a staggering masterpiece: brooding, biting, anguished, mourning, soul-stirring. Played with the high-octane approach so familiar from the John Wilson Orchestra’s Hollywood film and musicals Proms, the symphony seared itself in the mind. No surprise, perhaps, given that the Sinfonia of London made its recording debut with this work. Yet hearing it live, in all its emotional intensity and ferocity, was another experience entirely.



Striking a chord


I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps the composers whose music can appear most closely related to their life stories stand the best chance of cutting through to the public upon discovery or rediscovery. Weinberg, for example, and indeed Korngold, are possibly easier ‘to get a handle on’ than certain figures among their more-or-less contemporaries who wrote marvellous music yet kept it wholly detached from their personal circumstances, such as Hans Gál and Szymon Laks. I’ve loved everything I’ve heard by both the latter; if they are winning through now, it’s because of the assiduous championship of some very devoted performers. Hopefully it will continue, but I wonder if this may partly explain why it’s sometimes seemed more of an uphill struggle.


Still, there’s a danger mark over which parts of Korngold’s story are remembered. For decades he was vilified for having gone into film music, but does one really have to spell out why he did so? Korngold was Jewish in Vienna. After the Anschluss in 1938, had they not escaped, he and his family would have been deported to a concentration camp and murdered. 


His astute colleague Max Reinhardt, the theatre director, invited him to Hollywood in 1934 to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and introduced him to Warner Bros. He had the perspicacity to accept their commissions and to apply for American citizenship in 1936. Warner Bros saved the Korngold family’s lives. The Korngolds were, in the grand scheme of things, ‘lucky’.


The fact that he escaped with his life did not prevent exile from being painful, or the job of film music ultimately unsatisfying. When the films disappeared from the cinemas, so did his music. This is why he recycled so much of it into concert works – though that’s complicated by the fact that many of the ideas in his film scores originated from notebooks he had kept years earlier in Vienna, before Hollywood was ever a glint in anybody’s eye (try this: the main theme from The Adventures of Robin Hood can be found in waltz form in his completion of Leo Fall’s operetta Rosen aus Florida, 1925). 


The problem changed a little when television became ubiquitous. For years, those films remained in wide circulation on TV: The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood brought Korngold’s name and soundworld to generations of viewers. No wonder people associated him with film music – especially when his concert works and operas were being performed very little in the mid-century. A few recordings won through in the ‘70s: Kempe conducting the Symphony, Leinsdorf’s Die tote Stadt, for instance, but it’s fair to say that these were a tad niche. 


Korngold was therefore being remembered as ‘a Hollywood composer’, rather than as a Jewish composer in exile who, after the war ended, must have seen the film footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The degree of that shock and agony is unimaginable to most people sitting in concert halls today. (Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music, has explored the issue of cultural loss in depth here.) 


My copy of Die tote Stadt, piano score
sourced from Travis & Emery in 1987


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… 


When I was a student 35 years ago, the faculty spent plenty of time drumming into us that a composer’s music has nothing whatever to do with his/her/their life experience: works were to be considered solely on their own terms, regardless of their creator’s history. This is the diametric opposite, of course, of my speculations about which music chimes with the public when neglected composers come out of the woodwork. 


Again, it’s a massive generalisation, a trawler-net in which some pretty big tuna are left flailing. Nobody who knows any composers personally could think that (as some clunky biopics would have it) they just sit down and write a piece that expresses his/her/their immediate, overt experience or state of mind. Some might have, sometimes: for example, a Robert Schumann who wrote so intensely that he could draft a whole piano work in just a few days - but that’s the exception. There are many, the Gáls and Lakses for instance, who deliberately keep their work and their lives separate. Or to quote (or misquote) a line of Nina Raine’s play Bach and Sons, Sebastian says rather tetchily: ‘Of course there are emotions in my music – just not my emotions.’


In between, there’s infinite middle ground. Try Beethoven. Sometimes what he didn’t write can tell us a little bit about how he did, when he did. He had notably scant output in 1817, something often attributed to his personal state of mind, body and preoccupations at the time: illness, depression, trying to adopt his nephew, and so forth. Look a little closer, though, and you see what was actually going on in 1817: the noxious mix of Napoleon’s rampaging return, the 1816 Indonesian volcanic eruption which produced a ‘year without a summer’ in Europe with crop failure leading to massive food shortages, runaway inflation… It’s a wonder that anybody managed to write any music at all. 


You can take composers out of their times, but… We’re all subject to the buffeting of history, like it or lump it, and composers perhaps more so than most, since their work is widely expected, despite all that detachment, somehow to distil their zeitgeist into sound.


Each note on a page is a choice by the person who put it there; each person will present a different, individual set of responses. One size doesn’t fit all. And essentially, music is a human creation. It doesn’t write itself. 



…wildest dreams…


When I set about my university dissertation on Die tote Stadt in 1986, I can’t say I ever expected to see it on stage, let alone at the Bavarian State Opera by Marlis Petersen, Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko. I’d heard just one, rather muddy recording of the Symphony. I knew nothing of Das Wunder der Heliane except the one famous aria, ‘Ich ging zu ihm’; I never imagined I’d give the pre-concert talk for its UK premiere and, since that performance wasn’t a massive success (it didn’t fit inside the hall and the chosen solutions did not work) the recent production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was beyond my wildest dreams. 


But here we are, it’s 2021 and the Symphony has raised the roof. Korngold fanatics from all over the country came to London to hear it. The recording (on Chandos) has been winning prizes. There will still be people who don’t like the piece, but that’s natural: nobody can like everything and no one should be expected to. The crucial thing is that with such a performance, the composer has the best possible chance of getting his music to us across time, space and dimensions. And we can hear it, at last, as it really is, because Wilson knows the style inside out, understands what to do with it and has an orchestra that can play it properly. (Catch it on TV on BBC4 on Thursday evening, or afterwards on the iPlayer.)


Next…can we perhaps plead with ENO to stage Die tote Stadt with Wilson conducting? I’m sure somebody could make a good, singable translation [raises hand]. It is to be featured at the Longborough Opera Festival next year – its first hearing in the UK since a slightly uninspiring outing at Covent Garden about 13 years ago, even though it is all over Europe these days. 


Finally, I’m daring to dream.