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CD Review

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Between Two Worlds

  • Between Two Worlds: Judgement Day
  • Symphonic Serenade
  • Theme and Variations
Alexander Frey, piano
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Mauceri
German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/John Mauceri
London 444170-2
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Yet another entry in London's Entartete Musik series, devoted to works and composers suppressed or killed by the Third Reich. The term refers to a large exhibition mounted by the propaganda ministry against "degenerate" art and music, an exhibition that proved so popular with the public that it caused the Nazis some embarrassment.

As a Jew, Korngold was in the black book, thus showing government officials once again as artistic morons. Korngold's music was firmly in the line of Richard Strauss, whom the Nazis held up as representative of the noblest in German art. Indeed, as a child composing prodigy, many Viennese thought he would be the next Strauss. It turned out that Korngold, although a fine composer, wasn't in Strauss's league. There's nothing close to Heldenleben or Elektra or Rosenkavalier or Don Quixote in his output. Still, there is a large amount of lovely music.

Korngold fled to the United States with his family. Fortunately, he landed in Hollywood to find work in films and, in the process, became the leading Hollywood composer of his time. Indeed, his music – and Max Steiner's – defines the Hollywood (in particular, the Warner Brothers) sound. When people rail against film music, they usually have Korngold in mind. Actually, I suspect they really have the films Korngold scored in mind, for Korngold worked on very few classic films. True, he did write for the prestige "A" pictures and was practically Bette Davis's Kapellmeister, but most of Davis's pictures come off today as brainless, middlebrow melodramas which merely highlight her giving exhibitions in Acting. Of the nineteen pictures Korngold scored, three have become classics: Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. The others benefit greatly from Korngold's music, which (despite what the credits say) becomes the star of the picture.

Between Two Worlds was one of those dreary cosmic fantasies (like the Frederic March movie version of Death Takes a Holiday) so popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The best of the genre by far is Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which puts a refreshing colloquial Americana spin on the Eternal Verities. Between Two Worlds (it takes place on a ship sailing between the two worlds of Life and Afterlife – it's hard for me to recount the plot without my stomach getting ticklish) is by no means the worst of these, due mainly to the actors (primarily Paul Henreid and John Garfield) and the music. Still, the question boils down to whether the music lives apart from the images. John Mauceri has fashioned a suite from the various snippets and cues. Unfortunately, success eludes him. The bits, individually fine, just don't add up to a coherent work – an impression reinforced, incidentally, by the liner notes' relating the movie plot to the cues. The orchestration (by Hugo Friedhofer, who served on most, if not all, of Korngold's films) interested me the most, but mainly as a contrast to Korngold's non-movie orchestrations. In general, Korngold scores cleaner than Friedhofer.

I admit I prefer the non-movie Korngold – the operas, chamber music, concerti, and orchestral works before and after the Hollywood adventure – if only because I have the pleasure of seeing an artist in complete control over his material. The Symphonic Serenade for Strings is a gracious, graceful work, full of symphonic smarts (Korngold's Symphony in F# – little-known and underrated – immediately follows this) – a Viennese-y version of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. The liner notes make a misguided case for the influence of Bartók on Korngold, I believe to try to counter the rap against him as a reactionary purveyor of treacle. However, this seriously misunderstands the nature of Central European music after the death of Mahler, a misunderstanding perpetuated by propagandists for Schoenberg and his followers, where the "Second Viennese School" stands as the only modernist game in town against the forces of reaction. A culture, after all, is a spectrum of viewpoints. People all along that spectrum influence each other. I like Schoenberg, Webern, Weill, Krenek, Toch, Orff, and Hindemith – the modern wing of Austro-Germanic music. I also happen to like Schmidt, Schrecker, Strauss, and Korngold. All of these people (with the possible exception of Webern) balance late 19th-century and early 20th-century elements within their music. Korngold's harmonic range expands into decidedly non-lush areas and his rhythmic sense becomes more percussive as he matures, just as Schoenberg never moves beyond a post-Wagnerian view of "organic" form. Mauceri and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester don't convey Korngold's expanded rhythmic approach. Their attack splats all over the beat, particularly noticeable in the pizzicato second movement, which at times sounds like a tap-dancing chorus line. They do better in the slow movement, but Korngold's singing lines tend to take care of themselves. He really needs tighter rhythm.

Theme and Variations represents one of Korngold's few non-film commissions. Korngold worked in movies because the studio paid him, not out of an artistic commitment to film per se. He did his job well, but when he had saved enough money, he returned to concert work. Like Copland's Outdoor Overture and Schoenberg's Suite 1933, Korngold's Theme and Variations was commissioned for school orchestras, which lets you know what U.S. school music programs used to be like. Korngold marked the theme "like an Irish folk tune," but it just makes me wonder how much Irish music Korngold had heard. Indeed, the theme shares obvious rhythmic and melodic affinities with Dvořák's New World slow movement. Echoes of the film scores come in, particularly The Prince and the Pauper in the third variation and The Adventures of Robin Hood in the march seventh. What strikes one immediately is that, although the piece is structurally simple (most of the variations take about a minute, and Korngold never hides the theme), the orchestration doesn't condescend to the abilities of the players, although Korngold did provide a simplified version, less trusting of the strings and giving a greater role to the orchestral piano. Mauceri and his troops do the piece proud, in the most engaging performance of the disc. The sound is London's usual superb.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz