KORNGOLD Complete Songs
Those who find Korngold’s music difficult to take may blench at the thought of a two-disc collection of his complete songs including previously unrecorded off-cuts, alternative versions, occasional pieces and extensive juvenilia (‘Der Knabe und das Veilchen’ is the work of a seven-year-old). Be that as it may, Capriccio’s project must be judged a major success. While individual items have been championed by such illustrious performers as Dietrich Henschel, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sarah Connolly and Renée Fleming, Adrianne Pieczonka and Konrad Jarnot explore further and are by no means outshone.
They make a slightly odd couple, this superstar Ariadne/Prima Donna and her Music Master, the latter allocated the lion’s share of the songs (there are no duets). Sopranos tackling Wagner as well as Strauss in the opera house do not always retain Pieczonka’s bloom and freshness in recital, and her vibrato only rarely hits the microphone unflatteringly. Brighton-born and German-domiciled, Jarnot is a natural recitalist, glorious in lyrical reverie, his light baritone strained now and then at high decibels. Reinild Mees navigates the challenging keyboard-writing with a rare combination of tact and sensitivity so that one barely registers the absence of the orchestra in the operatic excerpts or the Op 14 Abschiedlieder, source of the relatively familiar ‘Sterbelied’ after Christina Rossetti. Straussian Sachertorte is by no means the collection’s only mode. There’s early material indebted to Brahms, Wolf and Mahler, and the more utilitarian Shakespeare settings of the 1930s include a haunting take on ‘Desdemona’s [Willow] Song’ that might have been composed by Moeran or Warlock.
A little clunky design-wise, the accompanying booklet contains helpful notes by Brendan Carroll and biographies of the performers. So far so good, but, notwithstanding the singers’ clarity of diction and a lovely, lucid recording, the patchy provision of texts is a real drawback. In several cases we are told that permission to reprint relevant material was not forthcoming. Worse, as the settings are in either German or English, only listeners fluent in both will be unfazed by the absence of translations.
Take the Drei Lieder, Op 22. The first song, the glorious ‘Was du mir bist’, cheekily recycled in the Suite Korngold wrote for Paul Wittgenstein, is overtly melodic. Its successor is more speculative in manner, albeit less so than the virtually Expressionist Op 18 sequence. An upbeat closing number soars stratospherically…but why? Though Carroll assures us of the composer’s singular ability to reflect the mood of a poetic text, most will be none the wiser. Korngold’s last song, the ‘Sonett für Wien’, refashions a theme from Escape Me Never, his final Warner Brothers score. It’s wide-ranging in every sense, a tribute to the city that meant everything to him but which sadly failed to respond in kind after the Second World War.
Strongly recommended and an important step in the composer’s rehabilitation.