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Hyperion Records

CDA66990 - Korngold & Marx: Piano Concertos
CDA66990

Recording details: June 1997
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 1998
DISCID: A80F2B0D
Total duration: 64 minutes 7 seconds

GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE
DIAPASON D'OR

'A superb coupling … the frankly outrageous challenges set by these unfailingly inventive scores are overcome by Hamelin with a nonchalance bordering on effrontery. A revelation' (Piano International)

'Mesmerising playing from Hamelin in two fascinating late-romantic concertos. Enthusiasts for virtuoso piano writing of the most fearsome difficulty will find it impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of Hamelin's playing' (Classic CD)

'All the most wildly romantic concertos you can think of rolled into one huge pianistic feat' (Gramophone)

'One of the most memorable in Hyperion's much-valued Romantic Piano Concerto series' (The Scotsman)

'Exceptional pianism' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Heroic piano playing of monumental proportions' (In Tune, Japan/USA)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Korngold & Marx: Piano Concertos
[untitled]  [3'11]
[untitled]  [2'38]
[untitled]  [2'17]
[untitled]  [5'08]
[untitled]  [1'56]
[untitled]  [2'46]
[untitled]  [3'11]
[untitled]  [1'11]
[untitled]  [2'49]
[untitled]  [2'30]

Super-virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin plays two of the lushest products of late Romanticism. The Marx concerto, long awaited by pianophiles the world over, is a first recording. Written in the 1930s, it is perhaps closest in style to Richard Strauss with its gushing melodies and rich orchestration.

The Korngold left-hand concerto was written (like that of Ravel) for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm during the First World War. It is Korngold at his most experimental and features a very large and colourful orchestra, and a particularly demanding (and awkward) piano part.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Joseph Marx and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were lifelong friends—in spite of a fifteen-year age difference between them and an enforced separation during World War II when Korngold (being Jewish) lived in exile in America. Both were Austrian, both sprang from the late-Romantic tradition and both were exceptional pianists.

Marx was also an eminent pedagogue. He was Director of the Vienna Staatsakademie (1922–1927) and for a time after the War he taught Korngold’s younger son Georg. He was also a writer and critic and he much admired his younger colleague as the extant correspondence between them and his later reviews of Korngold’s compositions amply demonstrate. Indeed, in 1923 the two composers joined forces to establish an ‘alternative’ Salzburg Festival as a riposte to the Internationale Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (International Society for Contemporary Music) which, completely dominated by Schoenberg and his clique, had more or less overtaken the main festival. Along with composers Alexander von Zemlinsky (Korngold’s teacher), Wilhelm Grosz, Hans Gál, Julius Bittner and others, Korngold and Marx organized a festival which they felt represented the best of modern music but which stopped short of serial techniques. This festival—which received a great deal of publicity and was well attended—infuriated the official committee and especially the IGNM’s founder, Edward J Dent. (It is a useful reminder that the Schoenberg revolution was not so widely accepted in the 1920s as might be supposed and, moreover, it shows the remarkable polarity of views in Austria at the time.)

The two piano concertos on this disc were written around the time of these events and represent, in different ways, the potency of the late-Romantic ideal in music even as late as the 1920s, long after it was supposed to be extinct. The concertos also demonstrate the musical individuality of these composers and their responses to the revolutionary ideas of the day.

Born in 1882 in Graz, Joseph Marx (1882–1964) was always interested in music but he does not appear to have studied seriously until he went to university. As a composer, he is virtually unknown today and none of his works has gained a foothold in the repertoire. Along with three fine string quartets, three piano quartets, two violin sonatas and much other chamber music, there are numerous piano works, over two hundred songs and several large-scale choral works. Marx also composed a symphony and other orchestral works including the fascinating Nature Trilogie—a kind of large-scale symphonic poem in three movements—and what is effectively a second piano concerto, Castelli Romani. None of these works has been performed in fifty years or more, nor have they been recorded.

Stylistically, Marx was influenced by Schumann, Brahms and Reger (the latter in his extended use of polyphonic development, very evident in this piano concerto) and he was seen by one contemporary critic (Heinrich Kralik) as a bridge between Brahms, Wolf and Schoenberg. Above all else Marx was an absolute master of harmony, as anyone who knows his exquisite lieder will attest. In the piano concerto, his harmonic palette is so rich that at times one might almost believe one was listening to Scriabin. These widely different composers are mentioned, not to imply that Marx was merely derivative but to show how his complex personal voice was fused from so many disparate sources and influences.

The Romantisches Klavierkonzert (which, as with all his works, bears no opus number) was composed in 1918/9 and first performed by Marx himself in a version for two pianos in the summer of 1919 with the Trieste-born pianist Angelo Kessissoglu, who also performed the orchestral premiere in Vienna in January 1921, conducted by Ferdinand Löwe. The concerto is in E major and laid out in three movements. It is scored for a normal-sized orchestra, but the piano part is of immense stature (Marx must have been a formidable pianist) and dominates throughout. As with Korngold’s later Concerto in C sharp (1922/3), this work resembles a symphony for piano and orchestra, for at no time is the piano solo reduced to mere display. The integration of melody and countermelody, the interplay between soloist and orchestra, and the truly orchestral characteristics of the piano part make for a symphonic whole. Marx was not a brilliant orchestrator, generally opting to allow the string section to support the piano with occasional flashes of colour coming from the wind and brass.

In matters of form Marx was content to remain within Classical ideals: a traditional sonata structure in the opening movement, the slow movement in simple ternary form, while the finale is a lively rondo. In this respect, the concerto is more attuned to the nineteenth century than the twentieth. Its ‘Romantic’ characteristics are therefore suggested by its musical content.

The opening movement, Lebhaft (Allegro moderato) (track 1), is in the tonic E major and, beginning with a discreet drum roll, immediately the heroic upswing of the main theme is announced, a fulsome and radiant melodic idea that is already being treated polyphonically in the inner voices. After this rapturous statement, the piano enters in the manner of a cadenza—a vigorous flourish, leading to a richly chordal repeat of the theme which immediately broadens and develops rapidly. A subsidiary theme, heavily accented with powerful octaves, darkens the optimistic tone before the second subject proper enters in the woodwinds. This slower theme is highly expressive and the Marxian harmony here is ravishing. The form is then broadened to include a sort of scherzo section in brisk 6/8 time, heard in the orchestra alone, which replaces a more traditional development although references to the earlier material abound. A series of powerful climaxes leads to the recapitulation where the piano takes up the opening theme with great virtuosity as the orchestra fills out the second subject in response. After a terrific climax, the movement ends rapidly in the tonic major.

The slow movement (track 2) is in F sharp minor and opens with a soulful pastorale for woodwinds, reminiscent of Bach and based on a plaintive melody. The piano enters and proceeds to embellish and almost improvise on this theme, building to a huge crescendo of spread chords and increasingly chromatic arpeggios, before the pastoral mood returns. The piano is frequently alone, musing to itself, and as the movement ends it is the piano which draws this highly individual elegy to a close, with the full orchestra only returning for the final chord.

We return to E major for the finale (track 3)—a glittering rondo which restores the exultant upswing of the first movement, replete with dance rhythms and many playful themes that are woven together in an extraordinary manner. At times, the harmony and wayward, ever-moving melodic material remind one of Delius. A subsidiary theme heard in the bassoon leads to an episode which is Russian in character but this is soon replaced by a heartfelt, lyrical, upward-leaping melody of considerable beauty. This reappears in full orchestra before the hectic coda, in which the piano hurtles through some incredibly difficult variations on the main idea (replete with double, consecutive, chromatic—and split—octaves, coupled with syncopated spread chords!) as the concerto ends triumphantly.

The Romantisches Klavierkonzert was played in Austria and Germany throughout the 1920s, but (perhaps because of the phenomenal difficulty of the solo part) it had disappeared from the repertoire by the mid 1930s.

The Piano Concerto in C sharp for the left hand, Op 17, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) had also disappeared by the 1930s—but for different reasons. In 1922 Korngold had been commissioned by the celebrated one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein to compose a piano concerto for the left hand alone (Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in the Great War). Later, Richard Strauss, Franz Schmidt, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel (among others) would also be approached. However, it was Korngold who was the first to be asked and he responded with an extraordinary work which is—for him—an exceptional case, both in form and mood.

Unlike Joseph Marx, Korngold has undergone a tremendous rehabilitation in recent years, especially on record. Indeed by 1997, his centenary year, virtually all of his major works were available on disc, often in several versions. Born in 1897 in Brünn, he was one of the most astonishing child prodigy composers in history. His career—from wunderkind in Imperial Vienna to major operatic composer, before becoming a pioneer of symphonic film music in Hollywood—is well known.

The Piano Concerto in C sharp was written when he was in his mid twenties, in the wake of his greatest operatic triumph, Die tote Stadt, and when he was already one of the most important composers in Austria. It is forgotten today that by 1925 he was the most performed composer after Richard Strauss—in German-speaking countries at least. It is not surprising therefore that Wittgenstein turned to him for the first commissioned left-hand concerto. Prior to this, only one other left-hand concerto existed—that written by Count Géza Zichy (a pupil of Liszt) in 1902.

If the Marx concerto resembles a symphony, then the Korngold assumes the character almost of a symphonic poem. Conceived in one continuous movement, it uses a very large orchestra with considerable virtuosity and is formally so intense and concentrated that it is difficult to absorb at a single hearing. The term ‘concerto’ is derived from the verb ‘concertare’ meaning ‘to struggle’, and here Korngold takes this term literally, with the need for musical conflict taken to new heights of expression.

Unlike Marx, Korngold clearly speaks with a twentieth-century voice. This is particularly true of his highly original harmony and his use of tonality. The tonal language is split—neither major nor minor is specified in the title, although the given key signature is C sharp minor. The piano begins alone (track 4) and the opening phrase is actually in C major, leading to a thunderous C sharp major chord. This tonal conflict underlines the musical one. In the bars which follow a number of other keys are implied and as the full orchestra enters the need for a key signature has almost disappeared. The upward-leaping opening phrase—a rising fifth followed by a perfect fourth—is typically Korngoldian. Dissonant chord clusters with ear-splitting consecutive major seconds fill out the theme which is marked ‘heroic, with fire and power’—and the character of the music is just that.

After the orchestra has given a full statement of this, the piano continues to build towards the second, more lyrical subject (track 5) in the surprising key of B major. In Korngold, melodic development and interrelation are crucial and so we can observe that this new theme, while also being derived from the first three notes of the opening subject, appears to be quite different. It is also strangely similar to the eighteenth variation of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini written eleven years later. Korngold is often accused of ‘borrowing’ but in fact he is amazingly prescient in his ideas. Here the music loses its grim character and luxuriates in the intensely romantic style so typical of Korngold, especially in his later film scores. Following a dance-like scherzo (track 6), sombre trombones coupled with the piano intoning a repeated octave bass of B flat (which is, incidentally, also rhythmically identical to the main theme which opened the work) announce the development (track 7).

The piano broods on this material, with rapid runs giving emphasis to the B flat tonality interspersed with strangely dissonant chords, before suddenly commencing a long-spanned sequence of spread chords—first C minor with an unexpected top B natural, then F minor with an added E flat and so on. The harp adds to the voluptuous effect, with violas and flutes, in this strangely haunting sound world. Two flutes intone an arching, high-pitched theme and the music shifts upwards to B major. The rhythm gently segues to 6/8 and we arrive at a new section marked ‘Reigen’ (or ‘round dance’ - track 8) and a new key—F sharp major, one of Korngold’s favourites.

The effect here is that of a waltz, albeit a very strange one. A solo flute sings a wistful tune while the piano supports it with an undulating rhythm, as increasingly more of the orchestra is added—delicate filigrees of wind and celeste, a solo violin rhapsodizing. As the tempo gently slows, the piano has a new theme, a languid chordal idea, while the flute holds a sustained trill (track 9). Once again, this new theme is linked to the opening four notes of the concerto; there seems to be no limit to Korngold’s genius for melodic integration.

Into this rich fabric, a solo horn menacingly intones the arching flute theme from the development and we begin the long, tense build-up to the astonishing recapitulation (track 10). The piano suddenly—and vehemently—reintroduces the main theme from the opening of the work and the concerto returns to the harshly dissonant exposition, but in a shortened and altered form. Much of the melodic material is now given to solo brass with tremolando strings, while the piano embellishes and emphasizes at crucial moments. A mellifluous passage of spread chords (track 11), passing through a series of unrelated keys, effectively slows down the tempo (inexplicably this was to reappear over twenty years later in the closing pages of Korngold’s epic score for the film Of Human Bondage).

As we end on a characteristically piquant Korngoldian chord (F sharp major in second inversion, with an added G sharp), the final section begins. This is a rondo (track 12) heralded by a growling rhythmic theme on two solo double basses which slowly builds as the piano rejoins the fray. Here, finally, Korngold’s familiar wit and humour burst forth but, unusually, with a demonic twist. This dance is devilish rather than playful and whirls along at a frenzied pace. A wonderful moment—a true master stroke of genius—comes when, suddenly in the middle of this hectic mêlée, Korngold inserts the opening phrase of the concerto, as if to remind us where we are actually going—to the grand return of the opening. This ubiquitous four-note phrase, heavily emphasized, does return and leads us to the cadenza (track 13), a massive-toned restatement of the main theme that finds new resources of development and extemporization.

Having exhausted itself in ever more outlandish modulations, the cadenza climaxes with the huge coda where the orchestra and piano reassert the main theme over and over again (as if reluctant to leave it) in one sustained cadence, before ending on a thunderous C sharp major chord, marked ‘non diminuendo’, with which this astonishing work is finally over.

Korngold achieved his goal of creating the illusion of two hands playing while using only one by incorporating many of his own extraordinary pianistic idiosyncrasies into the solo part. As a concerto the work is unique and it remains, after nearly eighty years, a highly original conception. It was first performed in Vienna on 22 September 1924 as part of the summer music festival there, conducted by Korngold himself with Wittgenstein as soloist. Wittgenstein so liked the piece that he commissioned a second work—the Suite for Left Hand Piano and Strings, Op 23, which Korngold completed in 1930. However, because Wittgenstein (who died in 1961) owned the exclusive performing rights, the Concerto was not played by other pianists. It was gradually forgotten until the 1980s when Gary Graffman revived it, aptly describing the work as a ‘keyboard Salome’.

Brendan Carroll © 1998


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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67975  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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