A Rare Outing for Korngold’s Symphony in Birmingham

30/01/2015

  Bernstein, Gershwin, Korngold: Freddy Kempf (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Michael Seal (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 28.1.2015 (JQ)

Bernstein – Divertimento
Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F
Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp major

It seems almost obligatory these days for orchestras to bestow a title on each concert they give. In line with this practice the CBSO gave this concert under the title ‘American Classics’. This was arguably something of a generous title since only two of the composers featured were actually born and bred in the USA and I think it would be hard to argue that either the piece by Bernstein or the symphony by the adopted American, Erich Wolfgang Korngold have attained classic status – or anything remotely approaching it.

 Bernstein was commissioned to write his Divertimento to mark the centenary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1980. As Anthony Burton reminded us in his excellent programme note, Bernstein had long and very strong links with the city of Boston and its renowned orchestra. The result was a work of eight short movements lasting about 15 minutes and scored for a very large orchestra including no less than 8 percussionists, including the timpanist. Bernstein’s invention means that all sections of the orchestra get a chance to shine. Divertimento is a jeu d’esprit and pure musical entertainment – and very well crafted entertainment at that. Parts of the piece worked well in this performance, including the affectionately schmaltzy Waltz (in 7/8 time!) in which I particularly admired the cello solo. The tangy Mazurka also came over well as did the Blues with its suitably sleazy muted brass. However, the unashamedly corny Turkey Trot with its gawky irregular gait was less successful; the performance seemed too straight-faced to me and rather typified a performance of Divertimento that, overall, didn’t feel sufficiently unbuttoned. Michael Seal injected some pizazz into the uproarious final movement – March: ‘The BSO Forever’- but elsewhere I felt that he held the music on slightly too tight a rein.

 Gershwin’s Piano Concerto may not be a “great” concerto in the sense that, say, those of Beethoven or Brahms are but it’s a highly entertaining piece, which I enjoy very much. There was much to admire in Freddy Kempf’s performance, not least his nimble dexterity in the first movement, but here – and in the finale too – the orchestra drowned the piano. I hasten to say that I don’t blame Michael Seal and the players for this; I think Gershwin simply overscored many passages though, of course, this isn’t so obvious on CD or radio when microphones balance the soloist much better. The bluesy Adagio came over very well: Jonathan Holland inflected the haunting trumpet solo most affectingly and Kempf showed great finesse in his delivery of the music – he was marvellous in the cadenza. Near the end Gershwin pares everything back to just a solo flute and the pianist, quietly duetting as if they were the last people left in a downtown bar late one night. Here Marie-Christine Zupancic and Kempf were quite magical in partnership. There was vitality and drive in the colourful finale. Kempf offered sparkling playing but, as in the Bernstein, I didn’t quite feel the orchestra were encouraged by Michael Seal to be quite as unbuttoned as the music demands. Nonetheless, this was an enjoyable account of the concerto

 Erich Wolfgang Korngold attracted great attention as a youthful prodigy in Vienna. In the 1930s he made a new home in America where he put his prodigious talent to work writing many notable movie scores in Hollywood. Yet despite his success in the cinema Korngold continued to write concert music also. His only symphony was completed in 1951. It is an elusive work in the sense that opportunities to hear live performances are rare indeed. I first became acquainted with it through Rudolf Kempe’s pioneering 1972 recording – the MusicWeb International review by Ian Lace is well worth reading, not least for much valuable background information.  There have been a number of subsequent recordings of the work – including one by Sir Edward Downes for Chandos  – but I’ve never had a chance to hear it live until this evening.

 The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, including a substantial percussion section, and the scoring is constantly interesting and resourceful. Among many features that catch the listener’s ear are the percussive use of piano and marimba, especially in the first movement, and the rather spooky end to that movement, including col legno work by the strings. It was one of the achievements of this performance that Michael Seal and the CBSO brought out all the colour and rhythmic ingenuity in the work. However, for all the inventive scoring and the enthusiastic advocacy that the work received in this performance I can understand why it doesn’t get played very often – the CBSO is not unadventurous in its programming but I’m sure this was the first time the orchestra has played it, though one would not have known that from listening. For one thing, the work is too long. It played for about 54 minutes here and one felt that the first movement, in particular, and the slow movement would have benefitted had Korngold edited them a bit. More seriously, I don’t find the musical material all that memorable. I hadn’t heard the work for a long time so in preparation for the concert I played the Downes recording earlier in the day. That meant that I heard the symphony twice in less than 12 hours yet even so very little of it – apart from the Scherzo – has lodged in my memory.

 The first movement is often powerful and dramatic and Seal and the orchestra brought off this aspect very successfully. They also displayed no little refinement in the passages of slow, quieter music that occur from time to time. The first of these quiet passages occurs about five minutes in and features a flute melody which reminded me very strongly of an idea in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. That material is revisited just before the end of the finale. The driving scherzo reminds us that Korngold wrote music for a number of action movies; this is exciting stuff and the CBSO articulated it very well. After a couple of minutes the horns play a ripe, memorable theme that definitely comes from the pen of a Hollywood composer – and it’s none the worse for that.  The veiled, gentle music of the trio was well done.

 The slow movement is expansive and richly romantic and Jessica Dutchen’s comprehensive programme note pointed out that Korngold quotes from no less than three of his film scores during these pages. Michael Seal gave every sign of being completely convinced by the music and he encouraged the CBSO to play ardently. Indeed, the playing was full of conviction, not least at the big climax near the end of the movement, which was powerfully projected. I enjoyed the performance at the time but I’m afraid the music has refused to lodge in my memory.  Much of the finale is dashing, extrovert and cheerful and in these passages the CBSO’s playing was colourful and sparkling. They also did the more reflective sections well. During the movement’s course Korngold diverts from time to time to recall music from the earlier movements before a short and extrovert Big Finish.

 I’m glad to have heard the work in a live performance and Michael Seal and the CBSO gave it with conviction, making the best possible case for Korngold’s neglected score.

 

John Quinn.   

 

 

 

 

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