Thursday, 22 November 2007

No wonder

We are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's death on 29 November 1957. I came across this plaque marking his birthplace in Brno quite by chance while on the Janacek trail back in May. I must admit, though, that the current Korngoldolatry rather baffles me. He was a prodigy, no doubt, a slick and easy orchestrator and a master of pace, but what did he actually have to say? Zemlinsky, Busoni and Hindemith, to name but three, all have far more individual voices. Was film music, with its quick evocation of atmosphere and its use of musical material that shouldn't impinge too much upon the senses, Korngold's natural destination?

It rather seems so from the performance of his 1927 monster opera Das Wunder der Heliane, given its UK premiere last night in London's Royal Festival Hall by the inspirational Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I'd been unimpressed by the Decca recording - it struck me then as a pale shadow, so to speak, of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Yet Jurowski clearly believed in it, so it seemed worth while to give it another try.

The better the performance, and the more lustrous the application of Korngold's late romantic orchestral palette, the more yawning the gulf between form and content. Quite apart from the fact that the libretto has to be one of the worst in operatic history, with gems like 'Am I filth, spewed out from sundered hell?' and much along the lines of 'who gives himself, has conquered himself', Korngold falls very short of the possible transcendence that music alone can provide in such circumstances. The soprano and tenor roles are insanely taxing; Patricia Racette almost made us believe in the moment when Heliane offers to undergo a trial before God to bring her beloved, self-slaughtered Stranger back to life. Almost; but for me there wasn't a moment of musical or dramatic truth in the entire work. We have a useful lyric-verging-on-helden tenor, too, in Michael Hendrick; but the Festival Hall audience also witnessed, open-mouthed, possibly the worst baritone singing on a professional platform ever from the once-excellent Andreas Schmidt, the voice now shot to ribbons. He should have cancelled his contract, or maybe never have been put in this position. Anyway, he will ruin the LPO's recording - I assume they're making one from the presence of the microphones - as surely as Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet will 'do' for the Chandos recording of Foulds's A World Requiem (than which Korngold's opera is at least, it has to be said, a great deal more substantial).

Half the audience gaped in reverence at the wonder of it all; the other half wanted to laugh. What is it about such second-rate works which attracts the anoraks? Thomas Mann once wrote that Wagner's Tristan is for young people who don't know what to do with their sexuality; in which case I pose the heretical thought that Korngold's Heliane is for older men who've never known what to do with it.

Finally, then, the same question arises as with the Foulds: would we rather hear such a work done once in concert rather than not at all? In this case, given Jurowski's conviction, maybe; but there are too many much better Austro-German operas lying mouldering. After all, it's over half a century since London heard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, a more masterly and inspired work in every way. Hurrumph.

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