Korngold: Complete Piano Sonatas / Michael Schäfer

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This is a recommended disc...if you don’t already have this CD in its former incarnation [Calig 50995], I strongly urge you pick up a copy...
This is a recommended disc...if you don’t already have this CD in its former incarnation [Calig 50995], I strongly urge you pick up a copy of it. Korngold is one of music’s authentic geniuses. He began playing the piano and improvising his own compositions at the keyboard almost before he was out of the crib. By the age of 11, he had written his Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, which is already a work filled with the sweeping melodies and the hyper-Romantic harmonies that would reach full bloom in his operas, Violanta and Die tote Stadt. Make no mistake, this is keyboard-writing that seems to combine the big gestures of Brahms with the sweeping virtuoso displays of Liszt and Alkan. It is hard to know what music and how much of it Korngold was exposed to as a child, but as if by intuition (which is the nature of true genius), the pre-adolescent’s works already embrace the sound worlds of Mahler, Pfitzner, and Richard Strauss, and point presciently to worlds beyond.

Barely two years later, in 1910, at the age of 13, Korngold composed his Second Piano Sonata in E Major, and dedicated it to his teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky. It was premiered in Berlin in 1911 by Artur Schnabel. Even more ambitious than the previous work, this sonata is now in four movements instead of three; and in addition to going even further in the direction of tonal expansion that was leading inexorably to Schoenberg and Berg, the E-Major Sonata exhibits a grasp of formal cohesion and developmental discipline that represents a quantum leap over the D-Minor Sonata.

Twenty years would pass before Korngold turned his attention once again to the piano sonata, writing the C-Major, op. 25, in 1929. It, too, is a fine work, but one that seems almost like a step back in tonal language. The opening trumpet-like fanfare, in fact, bears a curious resemblance to Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. The 1926 Four Little Caricatures for Children are not quite, as might be expected from the title, Korngold’s answer to Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Each of the four pieces, in fact, is a musical portrait of a composer with whom Korngold was personally acquainted: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith. The publisher, Schott, who originally requested the work from Korngold, refused to publish it, possibly believing that the composers it caricatured would be offended. It wasn’t published and performed until 1978, until well after all of its intended targets were safely dead.

The Tales of Strauss is less of a caricature than it is a paraphrase of waltz tunes and operetta numbers by various members of the Strauss family. Considering its date of composition (1927), it is hardly surprising that the work comes across sounding not unlike much of the cabaret music that was being written at the time.

Michael Schäfer, who is now approaching 50, was certainly a fine pianist when he recorded this program nearly 10 years ago. Other than as accompanist to Dietrich Henschel on a Harmonia Mundi CD of Beethoven songs, he does not appear to have had a very extensive recording career, and I cannot honestly say I’ve heard him other than on these two discs. Technically, he sounds quite assured and up to the challenge of Korngold’s demanding writing, and the recording itself captures his instrument in a very clear and true acoustic. One should not overlook another fine recording of the sonatas with Geoffrey Tozer on Chandos; however, the Schäfer CD throws in the Four Caricatures and Tales of Strauss for extra measure.

Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Release Date: July 19, 2005

  • UPC: 881488408324

  • Catalog Number: PH04083

  • Label: Hänssler & Profil

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold

  • Performer: Michael Schäfer