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Piano Concerto for the left hand in C sharp, Op 17

'Korngold & Marx: Piano Concertos' (CDA66990)
Korngold & Marx: Piano Concertos
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Part 01: [untitled]
Part 02: [untitled]
Part 03: [untitled]
Part 04: [untitled]
Part 05: [untitled]
Part 06: [untitled]
Part 07: [untitled]
Part 08: [untitled]
Part 09: [untitled]
Part 10: [untitled]

Piano Concerto for the left hand in C sharp, Op 17
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 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 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, 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.

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’) 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. 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. 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, 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 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, 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’.

from notes by Brendan Carroll © 1998

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Details for CDA66990 track 4
Recording date
20 June 1997
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Korngold & Marx: Piano Concertos (CDA66990)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: February 1998
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