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Orchestral Music, Theatre Media Review Print

Historically Informed Korngold

July 8, 2013 - Williamsburg, MA:

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), Much Ado about Nothing, Op. 11 (1920); UNC School of the Arts Drama Soloists and Symphony Orchestra, John Mauceri, cond.; Toccata Classics TOCC 0160, © 2013, TT 69:05, 9£99 ($19.00 @ ArkivMusik.com).

It might appear strange to see “historically informed” for a recording of a score composed in 1920, but that is nearly a century ago now, and the form in which this work is now most frequently performed and heard is a far cry from the one in which it premièred for a number of reasons. Mauceri, who was one of the prime actors in Decca’s “Entartete Musik” series (whose executive producer was Raleigh native Michel Haas; and the discontinuance by the company of which series in the early years of this century I continue to bemoan), set out to re-create and then record the version heard in Vienna on May 6,1920, first in Schönbrunn Palace, and then, after its initial resounding success, in the Burgtheater, where several of Mozart’s operas were premièred. It is the first recording ever of this version and also for several of the music excerpts in individual tracks.

Korngold was one of the many composers who had to fear the Nazis; several, including him, left for England or America; others who did not lost their lives, dying in concentration camps or being gassed. We know Korngold for his cinematic scores, some of the best ever written, that include The Prince and the Pauper in 1937; The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, for which he won the Academy Award, the first composer ever to receive it; The Sea Hawk in 1940; The Sea Wolf in 1941; Between Two Worlds in 1944; and Of Human Bondage in 1946. They, like this work, are now most frequently heard in orchestral-suite versions. Some of their music was originally written to support dialogue, and has, in that format, an entirely different feel. Korngold started early with this type of composition, and boldly for accepting a commission for a Shakespearean text: he was 21 when he began composing it, not yet 23 at the première. His gift for the genre is immediately apparent in listening to this CD. It is simply enthralling! Hearing the dialogue, and in one instance a song, above the music, is revealing. For listeners who prefer to hear the music without the dialogue, the last five tracks of the CD (about 21.25 minutes) offer it in that format for the five where it appears in the full (about 48-minute) performance – of course, the entire performance of the play is considerably longer: there is plenty of dialogue without music.

The work is scored for a chamber ensemble with a string quartet at its base, and solo wind instruments as well as a harp, piano, tympani, and percussion, and a harmonium – for the wedding scene. It was enormously successful and was quickly adapted for performances of one sort or another all over, but never again performed in its original form – until now. The UNCSA performance on March 29, 2012, was also its US première; the recording uses the same cast and musicians. If you have any thought that because of the nature of the performers – students rather than professionals, banish it; these are tomorrow’s professionals, after all, and this performance is definitely at that level, as professional as they come. The very youthfulness of the actors whose spoken texts we hear is, in fact, a distinct plus.

The booklet’s cover features an ensemble photo of the dramatic cast (that also appears on the face of the disk) in the upper half, a photo of Korngold at about the time of the composition of the work in the lower left and the list of the performers in the lower right. Track listings with timings are on its inside page 2; the actors are listed in the left column of page 3 with track numbers indicating in which ones each is heard, and a photo of a pair of them on the right side. The program notes by Mauceri follow on pages 4 - 9, opening with an historical introduction detailing the première and his assembling of the original materials for this production – we are fortunate that most of them are still extant, some bearing crucial informative notes – to be able to replicate that première, followed by a scene-by-scene synopsis of the action, again with track numbers to show what music corresponds to it and supports the dialogue. A photo of a scene occupies the bottom 2/3 of page 6. Mauceri’s bio is on page 10 with a small upper-body photo in its upper right corner. Musicians are listed on page 11 with another photo of an actor occupying its bottom half. The back cover gives the recording credits and info about the CD manufacturer. The outside of the tray card gives track listings and timings in the middle with a summary note on the top and the list of performers on the bottom. Its inside is a photo of Mauceri at his music stand with some of the musicians looking at him on its right side. It’s a tight product without much white space but with all the information and no exaggerated hype. It is a fine addition to a CD collection and we hope the UNCSA will undertake more such productions.

Note: For a review of one of the performances that preceded the recording sessions that resulted in this CD, click here.