8 Jul 2021

KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Op 35

From Music Alive, 8:02 pm on 8 July 2021

Performed by Benjamin Morrison and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giordano Bellincampi

Benjamin Morrison

Benjamin Morrison Photo: Michael Schnabl

Erich Korngold was a prodigious talent who began composing at 6. On hearing some early works, Richard Strauss was moved to write of the then 11-year-old: "One’s first reaction upon learning that these compositions are by a boy, is of fear—and of concern that such a precocious genius should follow a normal course of development. The firmness of style, mastery of form, individuality of expression, and command of harmony are amazing."

Korngold and his musical legacy became inextricably linked with Hollywood film scores after he sought refuge and work in Los Angeles during WWII. At the wish of his father he'd sworn off composing concert-hall music until Hitler was deposed, but he longed to return to full-scale symphonic works and leapt back into it in 1945 with this concerto.

The story goes that the concerto was in answer to a long-running joke from a violinist friend Bronisław Huberman who would always greet the composer with the question: "Erich, where's my violin concerto?". At last, Korngold gave a musical response by sitting at the piano and playing a soaring theme. "That's it!" Huberman cried "that will be my concerto. Promise me you'll write it."

Although composed quickly, it hit hurdles as Huberman was slow to schedule it and another violinist, in an unsuccessful rehearsal, complained of its complexity.

Fortunately, Jascha Heifetz liked the look of it and even insisted that the solo line be made trickier. It was premiered in 1947 by Heifetz.

It was a hit with the audiences, as can be heard in the thunderous applause between movements in a live recording of the Heifetz premiere, but the critics were less impressed with one infamously labelling it: "more corn than gold". It's been posited that the hostility of the critics torpedoed Korngold's efforts to reclaim his pre-war reputation. Either way, Korngold died 10 years later and his status as a composer faded along with this concerto. Both began to be reassessed in 80s and the concerto is now a popular feature of the concert-hall.

He dedicated it to an early champion, Mahler's widow Alma Mahler-Werfel.

Programme note: Kevin Keys

Recorded by RNZ Concert, Auckland Town Hall, 8 July 2021
Engineer: Adrian Hollay; Producer: Tim Dodd