Korngold: exploration of beguiling Lieder one didn’t know, from Georgia Jamieson Emms

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s
Georgia Jamieson Emms (soprano) and Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Lieder by Erich Korngold: settings of poems, mainly by Eichendorff, from Op 9 and Op 38

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 4 September, 12:15 pm

Middle C has been neglecting its responsibilities with respect to the wonderful lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Partly the result of our diminished ‘human resources’ and partly … well, other things.

There are notes for two or three of them that seem to have failed to find a first sentence, but given time, some the right words and thoughts might emerge on the RNZAF woodwind quintet, six hands at the keyboard, recorder and harpsichord…

The name Korngold doesn’t seem to be found in the average survey of German Lieder, not even among the lesser figures like Marschner, Hiller, Berg or Pfitzner. But since the word is merely the plural of the German word for ‘song’, and applies to German composers strictly speaking, almost all German composers from the late 18th century will have things called ‘Lieder’ among their compositions. But in the course of writing this and exploring books and the internet on the composer and his music, it’s clear that has been a somewhat serious omission. I’d known little more than Korngold’s most famous, precocious opera Die tote Stadt and some of the film music written in Hollywood after he left Germany when Hitler arrived.

Most of the songs Georgia chose were also early and four were to poems of Eichendorff which were most commonly chosen by the famous German Lieder composers: Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Wolf (Schubert died before much of Eichendorff’s poetry became known). I was interested to discover several recordings of both cycles; since I’d heard none of them before, I must report that further hearings by singers like Barbara Hendricks and Angelika Kirchschlager increased my respect for and enjoyment of them.

The six songs of Op 9 were composed between the age of 14 and 19, and it was not difficult to hear rather unsophisticated tunefulness. One tries to hear influences and I succeeded in hearing, in Schnneeglöckchen, the sounds of early 20th century American operetta: Romberg, Friml, Herbert…, perhaps not the richness of the best of those, but a genuine, Liederish character. The second song was Nachtwanderer, whose theme is very close in subject and in certain musical hints to Goethe’s Erlkönig, but certainly suggested nothing of the song Schubert wrote at about the same age. Neither was the next song, Ständchen, again set to an Eichendorff poem; Schubert’s Op 889 is of ‘Hark, hark, the lark’ from Cymbeline., and his Ständchen in the cycle Schwanengesang is by Rellstab. There are several poems with the name and various settings of several of them. Korngold’s had a sparkling character, and it was one of the few that showed evidence foe me of his gifts: a gift for melody.

Liebesbriefchen revealed something wistful and interesting musically, in spite of a rather modest little poem. Das Heldengrab am Pruth was a gentle, touching little song with interesting piano accompaniment that captured bird-song charmingly. (I notice that Renee Fleming recorded it recently on a DVD anthology). I think Georgia said that Sommer was written for Lotte Lehmann to sing with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which would have accounted for a piano accompaniment that was orchestrally a bit clangorous; translation ‘blackbird blaring’? That is not in the least a criticism of Bruce Greenfield’s carefully considered and sympathetic accompaniments throughout the programme.

Knowing that the last two songs, from the Fünf Lieder of 1948 were from his last decade invites one to find more musical maturity and emotional depth; and I did. Georgia began with the second song in the cycle, Der Kranke (The Invalid), also by Eichendorff, expressed in gentle, morbid tones with a repeated descending phrase in the piano. The recital ended with the first poem in the cycle: Glückwunsch, words to a beloved that seemed to hint as much at uncertainty as to unalloyed happiness. They offered further opportunities to admire Georgia Jamieson Emms’s colourful and expressive voice.

They ended with a song that Korngold wrote in his late Hollywood years: an afterthought for the film Escape Me Never which was a bit of a flop. But it was a nice way to end a very interesting and rather beguiling 40 minutes.

This exposure has led me to some exploring of Korngold. I’ve long had a recording of Die tote Stadt, which becomes darkly seductive for much more than the dreamlike, beautiful ‘Marietta’s Lied’ (Glück, das mir verblieb). Many years ago, when the Concert Programme (as it was then) used to broadcast hour-long sessions on operas on Sunday mornings, William Southgate spoke about Korngold’s second-best-known opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. Its touch of the supernatural has haunted me and one prone to expressionist sentimentality has longed to see/hear a production. Not in this country…

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