Two prodigies highlighted in Chamber Festival’s Viennese program

Sat Jun 07, 2014 at 4:20 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Written at age 20, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Piano Quintet was performed Friday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook.
Written at age 20, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Piano Quintet was performed Friday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook.

Friday night’s entry in the North Shore Chamber Music Festival at Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook was called “Mozart in Hollywood,” juxtaposing youthful works of Mozart with music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).  The latter Austrian prodigy, who made his way to Hollywood, was remembered largely for his classic film scores after his death yet his “serious” music has been making a strong comeback in recent decades.

As a child in Vienna, Korngold was compared to Mozart by composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, a perception that may have been in part fueled by the fact that Korngold’s father was Julius Korngold, Vienna’s most feared music critic at the turn of the last century.

“What we have to remember,” said conductor/pianist Andrew Litton in introducing Korngold’s Piano Quintet — written when Korngold was in his early 20s — “is that Mozart and Mendelssohn were prodigies writing for chamber orchestra: by age ten, Korngold was writing for a Mahler-sized orchestra.”

Litton, who had performed at the NSCMF for the first time last year, admits that it was his idea to perform the Korngold Quintet on a return engagement, “since no one plays the Korngold Violin Concerto like Vadim [Gluzman, festival founder and director].”

With Litton at the piano and Gluzman leading a quartet that included violinist Danbi Um, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Wendy Warner, the five headed off with great gusto into the hyper-chromatic, melody-laden late-Romantic sound world of Korngold’s Quintet.

The strings all chose a robust, rich-vibratoed sound consistent with the sometimes Rosenkavalier-like style of the music. The virtuosic piano part, which Korngold wrote to showcase his own dazzling pianism, comes off as almost schmaltzy with its clusters, shimmering runs and double octaves, almost like a pseudo-Vienna cabaret on steroids.

The middle movement is a theme and variations, the finale almost initially Bartókian in its gypsy-like folk music quality. Like Korngold’s symphonic film scores, the harmony throughout the piece is dense yet melody-driven with qualitative thematic material never in short supply. Chromaticism is constant, but never losing sight of a tonal center.

There was constant eye-contact among the performers, who were all clearly having a ball throughout the 35-minute work.

Leading up to the Korngold was a Schoenberg transcription of Johann Strauss’s Roses From the South for string quartet, piano and harmonium. Gluzman and Um were the violinists with violist Rose Armbrust and cellist Ani Aznavoorian along with pianist Alessio Bax and Angela Yoffe on the harmonium together, all realizing the lilt and breeziness of the music with affinity and grace.

The transcription actually made a compelling comparison with the Korngold Quintet, coming from the same time period and offering a glimpse into Schoenberg’s approach to organizing and emphasizing sound elements within a tonal framework. The strings are kept in the spotlight melodically and harmonically while the piano is used rhythmically, the harmonium often providing sustained sound but also ornamenting others as needed.

A spirited account of the Mozart Violin Sonata in F Major, K. 377/374e, opened the evening with Gluzman as soloist and Yoffe as pianist, followed by the Mozart Kegalstatt Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, K. 498, with clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg, violist Neubauer and pianist Bax.

Shterenberg played the clarinet lines with aplomb and poignancy, blending luxuriously with Neubauer’s dark tone with solid support throughout from Bax.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival concludes Saturday evening with “Virtuoso Fireworks” including pieces by Mendelssohn, Webern, Handel/Harvorseb, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rossini, Gershwin, Glinka, Brahms/Cziffra/Bax, Schulenburg and Khachaturian/Zhurbin.

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