Record Guide: Korngold’s Symphony in F#

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After the Second World War, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the man behind the music for so many Hollywood blockbusters, dreamed of regaining his former position as a leading composer in the Europe he had fled. His symphony from 1952 was supposed to make him famous again. This did not happen, as modernism had now taken hold in Europe, and Korngold’s symphony was a critical flop from which he never really recovered. Today, however, the work is enjoying something of a renaissance. Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp Major contains his most modernist music, close in expression to Prokofiev and Bartok, although his romantic melodies still dominate.

Solid recordings

Franz Welser-Möst’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Warner is fast and dramatic, and the orchestral playing is of a very high standard. Welser-Möst places the work in a symphonic context, and the proximity to late Romanticism is always present in the interpretation.

 

Edward Downes’ recording with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos finds great melancholy in the music and the orchestra plays with spontaneity and commitment. Downes’ interpretation has an impressive sense of unity, although there have been more virtuosic interpretations.

André Previn’s version with the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon offers a luxurious, brilliant interpretation that is in many ways hard to beat. Previn, with his background in jazz and Hollywood, links the symphony to the composer’s film scores, but also gives it a symphonic weight. The sound quality of the recording is also impressive.

Rudolf Kempe’s 1972 recording with the Munich Philharmonic was the very first of the work, and it brought the symphony back to life after two decades of oblivion. Kempe’s interpretation is solid, offering both drama and elegance. A master of Germanic orchestral and operatic music, Kempe gives a solid interpretation that makes one realise that Korngold is a worthy successor to Mahler and Richard Strauss.

First choice

However, Marc Albrecht’s recording with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg seems deeper and more interesting than all the others. He adds something extra to Korngold’s otherwise fluffy and lush orchestral palette. The music here feels more modern than usual, and the influences of the great 20th century composers can be heard. Pentatone also offer a first class sound quality. Albrecht’s recording is undoubtedly my top recommendation for this symphony.

Overrated option

John Wilson’s recording with the Sinfonia of London for Chandos has been praised by many critics, but i disagree. Wilson’s interpretation is virtuosic, but far too fast and rather superficial. He also makes the slow movement a little too sentimental.

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