Korngold did not live to see his symphony achieve popularity, as many know. It premiered in serial-minded Vienna in 1954, poorly rehearsed, and immediately sank into oblivion as a holdover from the past. Korngold himself died just a few years later of heart disease. Nearly twenty years then passed before Rudolf Kempe discovered orchestral parts in the Munich Philharmonic’s score library and revived the work for a new era. This awareness wasn’t totally Kempe’s doing. A generation of college students had grown up in the meantime watching late-night swashbucklers featuring Korngold’s Hollywood scores. These audiences fell in love with the spirit of his music. It was Errol Flynn, you might say, who got young people interested in Korngold, and film score conductors like Charles Gerhardt who then followed apace with the music on LP. Today, John Wilson occupies a similar space in British musical culture, bringing to life for concert audiences music originating in film and television.
Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears.
“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
If you ever wondered who stole a Paderewski Prize from under the nose of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, here is the culprit, and here is the work that did it. It’s better than you think. Gardner Read (1913-2005) seems to have been one of those composers who wins competitions and gets punished by history for it. His music skirts the wild edges of the safe and known. Dismissed by Copland as “too romantic,” Read has largely been forgotten.You can find three of his symphonies on YouTube. But although the composer lived until his nineties in Manchester-by-the Sea, Massachusetts, I had never heard a note of his music before curiosity about the Second Symphony drove me to the bizarrely wonderful and nightmarish work it turned out to be.
Here is really lovely Dvořák: fresh and natural, gorgeously recorded—and with something new to say. That’s rare for the symphony, which has been captured for presumed immortality by every orchestra on earth—and dutifully miked from nearly every row in every concert house. There’s a New World for every taste in approach and sonic perspective.
This is a gleaming, sleek, satiny reading of the symphony, sensitive and appealingly refined, set midway back with none of the “E-Minor rasp” that can make brass chords overbearing and the music blatty. It also features light-as-a-feather winds and some of the most breath-stopping quiet string playing you will ever encounter. Krzysztof Urbański achieves a haunting effect at the end of the slow movement, where the music barely breathes. He has the strings move away from each other as they play, until they are at opposite ends of the stage, evanescing into the distance along with the notes they play.
If Gerontius died today, it would probably be at a hospital with no Cardinal Newman to record his passing and no Sir Edward Elgar to create his beautiful dream of a masterpiece. And, one supposes too, there’d be no Daniel Barenboim to bring the work to Germany so powerfully as he does here, details and quibbles to follow. We don’t immortalize last words and thoughts the way we used to.