The last time this site discussed a recording on the Austrian Capriccio label, it involved a release based on concerts given by Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musicalische Privataufführungen), specifically an arrangement for chamber orchestra of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which Schoenberg began in 1921 but was only completed by Rainer Riehn in 1982. At the end of this week, Capriccio will release an album (currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com) of the complete songs by a composer, who was in Vienna when Schoenberg began the rehearsals for his Opus 9 chamber symphony but chose to distance himself from those activities, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is easy to imagine that Opus 9 would be some distance from Korngold’s comfort zone; but then, by the same count, it is easy to imagine those close to Schoenberg regarding Korngold as a reactionary.
This would not be too inaccurate an assessment. However, as the son of a very demanding music critic, Korngold made it a point to seek out his voice and then, probably under parental pressure, refine that voice by cultivating the necessary craft. Today Korngold tends to be best known for lush orchestral scores, many of which were associated with rather ambitious opera projects but later, after his move to the United States, created as soundtracks for major Hollywood productions. These songs, on the other hand, provide a far more intimate side of Korngold’s work, working with limited resources (voice and piano) and serious attention to any text he chose to set.
The collection begins with thirteen songs written before he published his first collection, the six “simple” songs of his Opus 9. All of those early thirteen songs set texts by Joseph von Eichendorff, and at least some of them suggest that many of Korngold’s skills as a composer may have been grounded in his skills as a listener. One may thus approach these early songs as exercises in which Korngold tried to document what he heard while listening to the songs of Hugo Wolf. One may not recognize many tropes specific to Wolf’s writing; but there is a clear sense that Korngold knew Wolf was on to something and tried to pin down for himself just what that “something” was.
On the other hand once he started publishing, there was some indication that he felt he had “found his groove,” so to speak. Because the songs are brief, they stand as well-wrought exercises in rhetorical brevity; but they do not jump off the page the way Wolf’s songs (or, for that matter, those by Mahler) could. However, after his move to the United States Korngold took an interest in setting texts by Shakespeare.
Considering that English was not his native language, his approaches to Shakespeare are impressively stimulating. He never slavishly follows Shakespeare’s rhythms or draws attention to how the lines rhyme. Instead, he understands what the words are trying to say and shapes his music around their “semantic intent.” It is almost as if he knew how to approach poetry in terms of which words constitute the “semantic core” and which words provide embellishment, rather in the same way that making music involves sorting out the embellishments from the embellished.
Most of the performances on these recordings are by baritone Konrad Jarnot. Only a few of the songs are for soprano, and these are sung by Adrianne Pieczonka. Pianist Reinild Mees accompanies both vocalists. Both of them exhibit a familiarity with the songs through their approach to phrasing and dynamic shading. The result is that the entire album presents a side of Korngold’s work that is not particularly familiar but still deserves attention.