Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Shostakovich

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1857-1957) was one of those alarming infant prodigies who have quite extraordinary musical abilities: he wrote several operas in late Romantic style, and worked as a composer on Hollywood films from 1935-1945. I first discovered him when seeing the Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) which has a splendid - and Oscar-winning - score. This was in 1969, when Korngold was practically forgotten: since then there has been a revival of interest in his melodic style, and recently the Royal Festival Hall has included his works in several concerts.

Yesterday evening Nikolai Znaider played Korngold's violin concerto (1945), with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The concerto is drawn in part from the scores Korngold wrote for the film The Prince and the Pauper (1937), Juarez (1939), and the Oscar-winning score for Anthony Adverse (1936) - of course in those days the music for a film was effectively dead after its initial release, so re-using it wasn't such an odd decision as it would be nowadays. Despite its lush lyricism, the work makes considerable technical demands on the performer (it was originally written for the phenonemal Jascha Heifitz): Znaider surmounted these in fine style.

From 1908 to 1911 the young Korngold studied with the established operatic composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), learning a great deal from him. (When in 1911 Korngold went on to study with Hermann Grädener, Zemlinsky sent him a postcard asking 'Is Grädener making any progress?'). Korngold's romantic style, with complex orchestrations, owes a good deal to Zemlinsky, and the concert started with Zemlinksy's Sinfonietta Op.23 - a logical choice given the connection between the men. It's a late work - 1934 - dealing in more dissonance than Zemlinsky's earlier romantic writing.

Both Zemlinsky and Korngold managed to escape the Nazis and their condemnation of 'degenerate music'. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had to function in Stalin's Russia, when it was demanded that all music must be optimistic and in the service of the State. After damaging critiscism of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk Shostakovich had to give the appearance of complying with the State's demands. (Plenty of artists and musician's who failed to do so were 'disappeared'.) His 6th Symphony, composed in 1939, has three movements. The first, and longest, is uneasy and slow; the second is a scherzo, but one with an edgy feel to it. The last movement - taken by Jurowski at a cracking pace and played with almost terrifying precision - sounds on the surface like rumbustious fun: but it is the fixed smile of those in a totalitarian regime: look happy - or die.

Posted: Thu - November 15, 2007 at 09:07 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM