#Classical365: 19 – Korngold Symphony in F sharp

I think I’m probably a bit odd. Even though I know I shouldn’t, I know I make an assumption about a composer’s music as soon as I hear his or her name. If I’m unfamiliar with the composer’s output, I’ll assume the work I’m about to listen will leave me dissatisfied by the end of it. I’ll therefore begin the listening experience braced for disappointment.

Korngold is a good example. Conductor John Wilson has championed him at the Proms in recent years. There’s been critical acclaim for some performances too. I’d always assumed Korngold’s recent revival as a consequence of establishment ‘approval’ but when I dug a little deeper I discovered that the resurgence in interest in his repertoire extended as back as the 1970s. It makes coming to him for the first time forty-five years later embarrassing. For me, Korngold’s reputation as a film music composer over-shadowed his concert hall works. So, if he’s best known as a film composer, does that mean his concert hall stuff is shit?

Sorry to jump around, but it’s worth flagging up progress on the other New Year inspired project: the gym. There is a connection.

The new workout – the first week of three in stage one – is currently taking around about 45. It consists of one circuit of 12 exercises. Week two demands me doing two circuits. Either I’m going to have get up earlier each day or I’m going to have to work a little faster. At the moment, it’s good. Sets me up right for the day. At least I’ve achieved something.

Korngold’s symphony in F sharp helped no end. On first listen, the music is on a similar scale to Shostakovich, with a more orthodox harmonic language. There are hints of Schoenberg, a whiff of Copland. In terms of orchestration, Korngold seems closer to Rachmaninov.

The second movement really caught my attention: there’s a melody that soars above the band (first played in the horns), which sandwiched in between sections of scurrying staccato strings is something to behold – a moment when all is triumph is hinted at, when all might just be resolved. So too the pools of tranquility that follow after what you think is the end of the second movement.

The adagio takes me on a journey across the sea during which Korngold is at his most sentimental in the entire work. The middle section in particular feels as though we’re nearing some kind of emotional climax. But we’re stopped short of a complete resolution, cast back into a calmer, sweeter version of the opening melody which builds to a more triumphant if ambiguous end underpinned by a chilling three note phrase in the celli, basses and timpani.

This sets up the last movement nicely even if the rip-roaring freneticism ultimately transforms the movement into an extended showy concert overture. I wanted the ends to be tied up a little less tightly in the final bars. That said, Korngold’s symphony is a hugely enjoyable work and one which had to wait way too long for its Proms debut in the summer of 2013.

I was listening to Korngold’s symphony in F sharp performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on Spotify.

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