Orb and Sceptre – Coronation March
Ode to the Queen, Op.83
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony in F sharp
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Vilde Frang (violin)
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 6 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
If Korngold’s Violin Concerto is standard repertoire these days, his Symphony in F sharp, the biggest if not necessarily the best product of his late period, has been extraordinarily slow to find its niche. Changing musical fashion took its toll and so did sheer bad luck – Dimitri Mitropoulos, a potential advocate, died before he could conduct it, while Rudolf Kempe passed away not long after recording it. Has there been a more recent performance than Russell Keable’s with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra in 2004 since when the work has at least become more ubiquitous in the studio? Not that obscure then although this Prom was a significant marker in its reception history. (Such revivifications have been an essential feature of Roger Wright’s stewardship.) With John Storgårds taking up the baton as if to show he meant business, the relative security of the results suggested that it had consumed much of the available rehearsal time.
Looser in construction than Korngold’s insanely underrated Symphonic Serenade, composed at much the same time, his Symphony follows the Violin Concerto in redeploying film music, something which may or may not lie at the heart of critical reluctance to accept its symphonic credentials. We do know that the composer was careful to retain the legal right to exploit his Warner Bros. catalogue in freestanding concert work. Although many émigré contemporaries turned their backs on well-worn Germano-centric forms, Korngold always intended to re-enter the fray in traditional fashion once the War was won.
Those concert pieces do nothing to advance the musical language of the Western world, instead displaying the kind of distinctive biological personality which may yet ensure their survival. Alas, by retaining a German publisher and the unrealistic dream of re-establishing himself as an artistic force in the Austrian capital, Korngold, a naturalized US citizen, rather boxed himself into a corner, ill-health scuppering the realisation of a planned second work in the form. The surviving magnum opus, cyclical like Dvořák’s ‘New World’ but wearier in mood, is dedicated to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt without being quite certain whether it wants to return to Old Vienna or celebrate American popular culture. One thing’s for certain. The explanation for its neglect offered by Brendan G. Carroll’s programme note – that the piece was “at odds with the prevailing post-war clamour for atonality” – is sheer fantasy. Not until after Korngold’s death did BBC planners begin easing out more traditional voices like that of Edmund Rubbra (and even that change of emphasis has been much exaggerated).
Conservative it may be but Korngold’s music certainly doesn’t play itself – just look at that awkward key signature! – and for good or ill Storgårds took a generally serious line, reluctant to merely dazzle in purple passages, preferring to point up textural niceties which emphasised the darkness along the way. The second movement was as memorable for the wilted slithering of its trio as for the glorious, vaguely Waltonian thrust of the scherzo itself, its second element capped a shade stiffly by the BBC Philharmonic’s heroic horns, the strings tending to gabble at speed.
Relatively few moments in the score allude to the drenched ‘decadence’ of Die tote Stadt or Das Wunder der Heliane, the major Korngold operas of the 19920s. The motto theme heard initially on solo flute towards the end of the first movement exposition (Carroll preferred to define this as the second subject) is evocative rather in the manner of nocturnal Copland. The BBC Philharmonic treated its unadorned appearances with great sensitivity, offering genuinely hushed playing. It emerges as the wellspring of much of the argument, especially in the tiringly jaunty finale which seems not to know what to do with its insidiously memorable transformation into what sounds like early Strauss, nor with the subsequent parade of material from the earlier movements. Even so the music has its witty moments as when Korngold reveals his theme to be second cousin to George M. Cohan’s patriotic ‘Over There’.
It was the slow movement which made the most powerful impact on the night, inescapably redolent of film music because Korngold virtually invented the genre yet anguished and ‘American’ enough to erode that unfortunate archetype of the facile wunderkind. Wisely or not, John Storgårds enlivened the proceedings with much wider tempo variations than usual. As throughout, his interpretation was at its best in elucidating Korngold’s individual scoring, with low harp, tuned percussion and piano doubling more conventional lines to magical effect. The emotive climax was (intentionally?) undersold.
Before the interval we had the fabulous Vilde Frang, a violinist of huge talent who has so far refused to be presented as a fashion model. Like her mentor Anne-Sophie Mutter (who plays the Korngold as well as the familiar Bruch) she is not afraid to take risks but this reading was relatively conventional if deeply and naturally felt. Though Frang occasionally sought to press forward, her conductor seemed less keen until forced into a sprint at the very end. The accompaniment was unexceptionable and cautious – no challenge here to the more assertive radiance of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic for Gil Shaham in 2011. The encore was intriguing. Announced by the soloist as “a small Norwegian folk tune”, it turns out to have been a miniature by Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978) entitled ‘Veslefrikk’ from his Fairy Tale Suite.
Prior to this we had a rare revival of Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen, apparently his only song-cycle with orchestra and unusually upbeat for this composer. Remarkably, Susan Bickley sang without a score, reprising her contribution to Richard Hickox’s recording. No matter if a couple of her words differed from those printed. She is an intelligent artist with a distinctive narrow beam of sound that carried well in the big barn despite the limitations of Rubbra’s word setting.
William Walton’s second, lesser known coronation march opened the show. That it has not been a bigger hit remains something of a puzzle. Writing in 1953 Lionel Salter for one preferred its appropriately “youthful vigour and gaiety” to the “staid, more obvious Crown Imperial”. The Proms audience responded with little enthusiasm on this occasion, notwithstanding the contribution of the hall’s spectacular (if score-wise optional) organ. That may have had something to do with the lacklustre nature of the performance. Storgårds began before the band was ready and there was little trace of idiomatic swagger.