Korngold: String Quartets 1-3, Piano Quintet Op 15 / Sigfridsson, Aron Quartett

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KORNGOLD String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Piano Quintet 1 Aron Qrt; 1 Henri Sigfridsson CPO 777 436-2 (2 CDs: 103:24)


“I feel it—and can’t comprehend it—can’t retain it—and yet can’t forget it; and if I grasp it all, I can’t measure it. … No rule would fit it, and yet there was no error in it.”


Hans Sachs’s rumination from the act II “Fliedermonolog” of Die Meistersinger is a perfect summation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music. At once gay yet wistful, familiar yet elusive, inviting yet unsettling, it aurally distilled all the complex contradictions of fin de siècle Vienna, preserving it for generations to come and carrying it into exile in America after the debacle of World War I. If the waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. embody a carefree present moment, the works of Korngold preserve and nurture nostalgic memories of a lost past, ardently clinging and seeking to re-create those, that it might still dwell in them rather than an alien present.


The four works in this set, spanning almost a quarter-century from 1921 to 1945, offer various refractions of those memories over a generation. The Piano Quintet and First String Quartet, composed almost simultaneously, present two decidedly different faces. The Quintet acts as if nothing has been lost; it is gay and brilliant, with unabashed romantic ardor emphasized by sweeping runs in the keyboard part. The outer movements are energetic, while the lyrical second movement employs an utterly haunting, gorgeous theme from Korngold’s song “Mond, so gehst du wieder auf” (Moon, Thus Risest Thou Again) from his op. 14 song cycle Lieder der Abschied (Songs of Farewell); once heard, it simply won’t leave one’s head. The First Quartet, by contrast, is more introspective and even melancholic at points; its backwards longing has a certain assertive determination to it. A far greater reliance on chromaticism and freer employment of spicy dissonance give it a constantly edgy, unsettled character, with an antsy, off-kilter Intermezzo and quirky Finale that includes a jaunty, almost Vaughan Williams-like march fragment as a second subject (Korngold inscribed the movement’s opening page with a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It ).


The Second Quartet dates from the summer of 1933, near the close of a period of several years’ involvement by Korngold with operetta, and just before his first visit to Hollywood. It is a microcosm of melodic and harmonic devices that Korngold would employ so brilliantly in years to come as a composer of film scores. Given Hitler’s recent assumption of power in neighboring Germany, the first, second, and fourth movements would almost seem to be a perverse denial of reality. The opening Allegro epitomizes the skittish music of the Hollywood light romance; the Scherzo is all charming, gently smiling bustle; the Finale is, improbably, a witty, chatty waltz, but one of a decidedly un-Straussian character. All the more surprising, then, is the third-movement Larghetto, beginning with open harmonics like an icy chill (almost hinting at the Second Viennese School), eventually succeeded by a melody of melancholic yearning that seeks to cling to a wistfully remembered but unrecoverable comfort and security.


The Third Quartet dates from 1945, at a juncture in Korngold’s Hollywood exile when, dispirited by academic critical disdain and convinced his film scores were destined for oblivion, he had secretly decided to turn back to composition in more “serious” genres. Dedicated to a longtime friend and near neighbor in exile, the conductor Bruno Walter, it shows Korngold adopting a leaner, more astringent melodic and harmonic language. The melodic material is more fragmentary and questioning; the dissonances more frequent and unresolved. The scherzo has a jittery, almost neurotic character to its outer sections, as short, choppy interjections repeatedly disrupt an incipient moto perpetuo , from which a brief lyrical interlude provides only momentary relief. The slow movement bespeaks stifled grief and haunting bitterness over shattered hopes, with searing pain expressed by violins playing in the higher register as the viola and cello grind out clashing chords below. Only the finale, with its Stravinskian flavor and vigorously offbeat cascades of 16th notes, offers a somewhat hesitantly upbeat finale.


The only other complete set of the quartets is by the Flesch Quartet, originally recorded for ASV and now available on a budget reissue from Brilliant Classics. In Fanfare 23:2 Martin Anderson had high praise for its rendition of the Third Quartet and Sextet (the filler there instead of the Piano Quintet here). If those performances were more competitive, the budget price would tilt a recommendation toward the older set. However, the new cpo set completely outclasses its predecessor at every level, both interpretively and sonically. The Aron Quartet plays with immaculate ensemble and intonation, with far richer tone and irresistible zest and tenderness; the Flesch ensemble is almost lethargic in comparison, with its overall timings averaging almost 15 percent slower. (For example, the respective timings for the First Quartet movements are 7:26, 7:41, 4:42, and 8:07 vs. 8:47, 9: 56, 4:37, and 9:09.) Although its spirit may be willing, the Flesch is relatively weak. Henri Sigfridsson is a perfect teammate for the Aron players in the Quintet, which is likewise far ahead of rival versions such as the uninspired Marco Polo recording. The recorded sound is exemplary in every way. One complaint: This is shockingly short timing for a two-CD set. There is no reason that all three quartets could not have been put on a single CD, and another work such as the Piano Quartet included on the second disc. Nevertheless, this album is a stellar contribution to the ongoing and much needed Korngold renaissance, and is urgently recommended for all devotees of that once unjustly maligned but now belatedly appreciated master of late Romanticism.


FANFARE: James A. Altena


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: 777436-2


  • UPC: 761203743629


  • Label: CPO


  • Composer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Aron String Quartet


  • Performer: Henri Sigfridsson