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The Sextet is in four movements. In the first, the introductory triplet figure (characteristic of a fugal subject) is the foundation stone of a highly intricate framework that is richly textured. The main theme, song-like and ardent, develops for over thirty bars before bridging to a lyrical subsidiary theme in B major. The tonality, while formally expressed in key signatures, is so restless that the latter become virtually superfluous. The development and subsequent fugato leads to the thoughtful coda.
The Adagio, which was composed first, commences with an impassioned, declamatory appoggiatura which presages the ‘Vision Scene’ in Korngold’s most famous opera, Die tote Stadt (1920). The unaccompanied cello enunciates the main theme which is taken up by the ensemble in a succession of impassioned statements supported by intense double- and triple-stopping with, for Korngold, some highly unusual and extreme bi-tonal harmony. Sensuous and erotic, this movement looks ahead to his masterpiece, the opera Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), and comes closest to Verklärte Nacht in mood and intensity.
By direct contrast, the Intermezzo, a graceful 6/8 in F major, is one of Korngold’s most lovable creations. The main theme is a variation of his motto of rising fourths (from the Sinfonietta, Opus 5, composed in 1913) which he liked to include somewhere in all of his major works, sometimes hidden, sometimes boldly stated; other examples include the Finale to his String Quartet No 1 (1922) and the Act 1 Love Duet from his last opera Kathrin (1932–7). This intermezzo is intensely nostalgic and decidedly Viennese, and gives rise to some scintillating episodes. It may very well have been composed to a programme and is obviously inspired by some of Mahler’s great hymns to nature; note the Mahlerian glissandi which occasionally swoop down in octaves. The touching second subject is one of Korngold’s loveliest thoughts, capturing that peculiar and unique Viennese sigh of sentimentality. The wistful conclusion, where the violin whistles, as it were, the melody one last time while everything ‘slips away like a dream in a moonlit night’ (as one critic put it) is finished with a Korngoldian cadence that is magical.
The Finale—like all Korngold finales—is high-spirited and good-humoured and races along at quite a pace. There are cyclical references to the previous movements while the second subject, jaunty and robust, looks ahead to the finale of his last major work, the Symphony in F sharp major some thirty years later. It can be seen from this brief examination that there is an ongoing continuity to Korngold’s music with the themes and motifs recurring naturally from his earliest to his last compositions. The Sextet is beautifully rounded off as it returns to the opening theme of the first movement, before the emphatic conclusion in D major.
The interplay of motifs, the intricate filigree work of the inner voices, the contrapuntal textures and the masterful scoring for each of the six instruments make this Sextet one of the finest in the canon. It is all the more extraordinary that it was written by a teenager. One is reminded of Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies or Schubert’s Octet, written at about the same age.
Hearing it now, it is easy to understand the message behind a famous postcard sent to Korngold around this time by Zemlinsky, then time resident in Prague and Musical Director of the German Theatre there. Hearing that his illustrious pupil had been taking instruction from another teacher, he wrote: ‘Dear Erich, I hear you are studying with Graedener now. Is he making any progress?’
from notes by Brendan Carroll © 1990