I first encountered TwoPianists Records a little over a year ago after they released a nine-CD box entitled Richard Strauss: Complete Works for Voice and Piano: 1870–1948. I knew nothing about the company other than the fact that the physical CDs were made in Austria. It was only after I visited the Web site that I discovered that the business itself was situated quite some distance from Austria:
TwoPianists Records was founded in 2008 by renowned pianists Luis Magalhães and Nina Schumann, and is based in the stunningly beautiful surroundings of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
This past week TwoPianists again came to my attention when I learned that their latest release was entitled The Korngold Project: Part One. It turned out that this project emerged as a result of a gathering of musicians of many different nationalities all coming together to participate in a chamber music festival in South Africa. They discovered that they all shared an interest in the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and used the festival setting to give their first performances of music he composed prior to his move to the United States to escape the Nazis. The Web page for this recording on the TwoPianists Web site continues this story as follows:
Such was the success of their virgin Korngold performances that they vowed to travel the world to complete the Korngold project. And so they embarked on a journey that included rehearsing in Berlin, performing in Oxford and finally concertizing and recording in South Africa. This is not an established group but a meeting of minds linked through the beauty of Erich Korngold’s music.
To be fair, these musicians are not the first to have taken an interest in Korngold’s music. The Beaux Arts Trio recorded his Opus 1 piano trio in D major in 1992; and, in my home town of San Francisco, it has not been difficult to find performances of Korngold’s chamber music, songs, and his opera Die tote Stadt. Furthermore, if one overlooks the film scores he composed after his move to the United States, his catalog is relatively modest: the opus number count only runs to 42.
Part of the problem may be that Korngold never really kept up with the times. As a child prodigy Korngold played a cantata he had composed for Gustav Mahler, who was impressed enough to recommend him for study with Alexander von Zemlinsky, who also taught Alma Schindler before she married Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (who would marry Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde). I have previously described the Opus 1 trio as having been “written at the time that the composer was of bar mitzvah age.” Stylistically, however, Korngold was best known for taking the lush outpourings of the twilight of Romanticism and pumping them up with a fresh round of steroids, which may explain why his music critic father Julius once chastised him with the warning “Don’t bathe!” The younger Korngold’s approach certainly served him well with the film industry; but, when he returned to Europe after the end of the Second World War, he realized how out of touch he had become with modernist advances.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Korngold’s music as long as one is willing to take an it-is-what-it-is approach. The contributors to this new TwoPianists release, pianist Magalhães, violinists Daniel Rowland and Priya Mitchell, and cellist Julian Arp, do just that. Their performance of the Opus 1 trio is a reflection of their youthful enthusiasm, which is certainly consistent with the exuberance of the composer’s age at that time. Rowland is occasionally a bit shaky with his intonation, particularly on some of the longer sustained notes; but all three players are definitely true to the spirit of the music.
The other selection on this recording is the Opus 23 suite for two violins, cello, and piano left hand. This was composed for Paul Wittgenstein, a celebrated pianist who lost his right arm during World War One. Wittgenstein came from a well-to-do family; and he is now known for having commissioned a generous number of compositions that could be played by the left hand alone. Korngold was actually the first composer he approached, and that first commission resulted in his Opus 17 piano concerto in C-sharp major. Wittgenstein was not phased by the key signature and presented Korngold with a second commission, whose result was the Opus 23 suite.
Ironically, while this suite played a major role in the journey of discovery of its performers on this recording, I was in a position to enjoy it as the piece of Korngold chamber music I knew best. I had encountered it not only through a recording, discussed on this site in February of 2013, but also (and far more exciting) through a student chamber music recital in November of 2010 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (For the record my first encounter with Korngold’s chamber music came about half a year earlier through his third string quartet, which he composed after his move to the United States.)
It is easy to imagine that Wittgenstein was as pleased with Opus 23 as he had been with the Opus 17 concerto. The opportunities for virtuoso display are legion, and Korngold shows a clear understanding of just how much the left had can do on its own. It would also be fair to say that there is far more rhetorical breadth in this suite than there had been in the youthful Opus 1 trio. Nevertheless, at the hands of the performers on this recording, both pieces stand firmly on their own respective merits; and, from a personal point of view, I have to say that I found myself taking delight in how another group of performers was enjoying the same discovery process that I had encountered from those conservatory students in San Francisco.
The question now, however, is one of where this project will go next!