5 NOVEMBER 2021
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was a genius. Naturally he was most widely known and rewarded as one of the founding composers of Hollywood film music, but he is not a particularly well-known composer in the classical music world. Somehow, only a handful of his compositions have made it to the concert stage, such as his Violin Concerto, Op.35 and his opera ‘Die tote Stadt’. His three string quartets are surely masterpieces and can be seen as modern tone poems imbued with beautiful melancholy and Viennese charm. A child prodigy, Korngold wrote some of the most heart-wrenching melodies, which are sure to leave any listener longing for more.
His String Quartet No.2, Op.26 (1933) was written just before Korngold moved to Hollywood and is full of musical imagery of Vienna, with gestures towards the waltzes of Johan Strauss II as well as the intricate lyricism of Richard Strauss. A fierce anti-serialist, Korngold was determined that it was still possible to stretch the boundaries of tonality without adapting to the 12-tone technique that his colleague Arnold Schoenberg had boldly developed; a choice that would put him into one of two camps in Vienna and proved to be difficult for his continued success, since it resulted in accusations of ‘juvenile triviality’. Korngold’s response was “I always remained true to my own beliefs”.
The String Quartet No.3, Op.34 (1945) is full of themes that he used in his film scores and was written when Korngold was suffering from deep depression. It was the first work he had written ‘for himself’ since 1937 and was also his last chamber work. The quartet is much darker, not only because of World War II raging on and destroying his home continent of Europe, but also because his father’s health was deteriorating and would result in his death soon afterwards. At this point in his career, Korngold was growing ever more disillusioned by the motion pictures he was being offered for scoring, and was longing for a return to writing pure concert music.
Why did we choose to tackle Korngold’s music for this unique project of a direct-to-disc recording on vinyl? The music resonates deeply with us, as it represents the epitome of late romanticism and lyrical expression. We all have a profound love for romantic music and after listening to some recordings of his quartets we knew instantly these were the perfect fit for us. It was definitely a challenge to understand the idiom in Korngold’s writing. Being the gifted composer that he was, we couldn’t just add a little bit of Mahler and a little bit of Strauss. That would have been too easy. Korngold is unique and therefore we really had to search for the right approach. However, meticulously following his tempi and articulation markings in the score did not always achieve the desired effect. We had to experiment between what was written down and what felt was right. We decided that we would have to think up certain characters for each of the phrases and melodies, just as he would do for his film scores. For instance, a scene from a Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton film would come to mind. During the course of our preparation, these characters would evolve or change until finally we felt that we could present a picture that would not only do justice to the score, but was also uniquely our own. Our individual personalities as well as the Alma sound is clearly audible.
What makes a direct-to-disc recording so special? Without doubt, it is the most honest way of recording. What you hear is what you get, with no editing whatsoever. It is thus a studio recording with all of the nuances and thrill of a live performance.
It transpires that the process is extremely strenuous and challenging. You want to make sure that the performance is as perfect as can be, but you also have to take into account the fact that perfection is simply not feasible. Perfection is somewhat of a loaded word, since so many of us in the classical music business strive for it. But the question is whether or not perfection is truly exciting and honest. If you look at how classical recordings are normally made, it involves a lot of editing where you play difficult passages over and over until you get them right. It is then carefully put together so that the average listener can’t spot the joins. This could be interpreted as a 'forged perfection' and it is how the recording industry has been doing things since the invention of cutting and editing. Naturally, this process has provided many breakthrough recordings, but they remain edits nonetheless. So when we were approached by Challenge Records to make a direct-to-disc recording, we knew we had no choice but to say yes. Challenge accepted!
The moment we arrived at the Artone Studio in Haarlem, The Netherlands, we knew this was a special day in our quartet lives. After months of musical preparation and deliberation it was time to put our money where our mouths were. We had done many recordings before, but playing a direct-to-disc session with music by Korngold was no piece of cake. We decided to wear our concert clothes in order to mimic the feeling of a real concert. We felt the responsibility of communicating directly with the listener through the needle and we realised that this was a uniquely beautiful homage to the olden days. The tension in the seconds before the classic “recording” sign turned bright red was extreme, as we all sat on the edge of our seats about to embark on a new musical adventure. As soon as that sign lit up and the needle started digging its way into the vinyl, we cued each other to start. The point of no return. Korngold’s music was by now deeply embedded in our DNA and we knew how to tell the story!