I was a fan of Korngold ever since I played violin in The Snowman in the orchestra in junior high (reduced score of course; here’s the full score of the Entr’acte), then as a solfeggist at ASCAP in NY around the time RCA was coming out with Charles Gerhardt‘s definitive recordings of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, etc. Then years later in San Francisco I inherited a friend’s collection of Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, which included Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp.
Maybe it was from associating the Previn recording with my friend’s death, but I grew to detest the sound of late Korngold. He began to sound false to me—the result, I reasoned, of all those corrupting years in Hollywood. And Previn was his perfect interpreter, of course, two Hollywood minds as one, you might say. Doesn’t, in fact, the first movement sound like a medley of The Ten Best TV Cop Show Themes and Their Underscorings? And then the ringer in the Adagio: The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex, so recognizable from the movie.
Bette Davis portrays Queen Elizabeth, Errol Flynn her faithful but ambitious lover in this sumptuous costume drama. In Technicolor for the Eyes. Warner Bros, 1939.
See, Hollywood lets go of no one.
And so I was content to continue in this apprehension, until Chandos came out last week with a new recording of Korngold’s symphony, played by the newly re-formed Sinfonia of London and conducted by—wait for it—John Wilson. By now, I think I’ve made my feelings clear about John just a little. Whenever he gets really irritating though there’s one thing that I do: I make myself remember the times my bonny lad has absolutely astonished me. The first time was fourteen, fifteen years ago in a screening room in LA when the band from nowhere just ripped into that hack hit “Beyond the Sea” and made it truly soar. The second time was a few years later when I heard the sound, THE EXACT SOUND!!!, of that ultra-Judy number from Meet Me In St Louis, “The Trolley Song”, only bigger, more vibrant, more—present.
This is the third time. Who would have thought that a smaller, tighter orchestra, conducted by someone coming in without preconceptions but with a determination to follow through with the composer’s intent, could make a composition sound like an entirely different composition? John said somewhere once that he endeavors to give each musical piece he “takes on board” its correct coloring (which I might believe if he weren’t so maddeningly inconsistent) but here he does the remarkable: Where Previn colors all over the place, trying to make the music into something it’s not, John colors very little. Rather it sounds like, as I say, he actually worked out the composer’s intent to carry him through, and it’s pretty clear that Korngold meant for Symphony in F-sharp to take its rightful place in the Great Central European Repertoire, with its traditional wealth of tonal expressiveness.
So why oh why do some people insist this piece is movie trash? Is it because of that handful of notes from E+E? I swear to God I didn’t hear any other filmic callbacks, and I’m pretty good at catching tunes. But so what if there were? Korngold, unlike the majority of movie composers, retained legal possession of his studio work, which gave him the freedom to rework any of his past themes and phrases as he saw fit. He certainly wasn’t thinking of the flicks once he returned to Europe. Maybe his attachment to these notes was purely sentimental. We’ll never know. It’s a mystery, and I choose to believe that John, consummate musician, respects that mystery.
Anyway John, my signal, my flame, as you’ve done with so many other composers, thanks for leading me back to Erich Korngold. It’s a wonderful recording, a keeper, now the standard against which I’m judging every Korngold Symphony in F-sharp out there (and there are a lot of them, not just Previn’s, as you know), and I would’ve bought it even if I weren’t crazy in love with you.
- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”