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Korngold for Piano!


Korngold: A Portrait for Piano Ramon van Engelenhoven, piano trptk 0124 Total Time:  72:35 Recording:   ****/**** Performance: ****/****


The music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) has begun to capture the admiration of younger performers over the past 20 years.  Performances of his violin concerto now fill the catalog and you will not go wrong with most any of them.  This might be due in part to the elevation of film music in general and its increase on concert programs where listeners get to discover this great music.  Of course, Korngold was already a sort of wunderkind before he had to leave Europe and landed in Hollywood.  That blend of classical and film musical worlds also was part of the discovery for Ramon van Engelenhoven, the pianist on this new release.  Engelenhoven garnered various awards and competitions and received first prize at the 2019 Steinway International Piano Competition.  His concert appearances have, to date, been mostly in the Netherlands and Germany.  For this release, Engelenhoven has organized a two part recital of Korngold’s music.  Three of the pieces are his own arrangements for piano.

The first half focuses on the composer’s classical concert pieces.  An aria (“Ich ging zu ihm”) from the opera Das Wunder der Heliane, Op. 20 gets things off to a fine start.  This is a masterpiece from the period that shows Korngold’s further extension of Wagnerian harmonic language.  The transcription works well to get a sense of the melodic line and richness of the harmony and feels a bit like elevated salon music—a reminder that even in his concert music, Korngold was creating engaging and accessible music.  Lest we doubt his ability, there is the Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 2.  Written in 1910, when Korngold was 13 (!), the piece shows a great command of Romantic-era echoes with new harmonic expansions and ideas.  The four-movement work features plenty of virtuosic moments with tuneful melodic ideas and a great dramatic thrust.  The scherzo perhaps is an early example of the sort of wit Korngold would bring to his film writing.  The slow movement is a fascinating moment that also seems to stretch tonality just a bit.  The sonata shows both the continuation of Germanic Romanticism of Brahms while also moving into the modern world of Mahler, Richard Strauss and Zemlinsky.  But, already one can hear the roots of Korngold’s musical style and language.

Engelenhoven mirrors the structure of the first half of the album with balanced pieces from Korngold’s film music that can provide equal comparison.  First is the “Love Scene” from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).  The beautiful music here provides a fine transition from the sonata but reveals too the composer’s gorgeous harmonic writing and gift for melody.  The result is a delightful concert piece that could be a great little encore in a sort of Liszt-ian style.  The album concludes with a nearly 30-minute suite from The Sea Hawk (1940).  For his transcription, Engelenhoven had access to the original orchestrations to adapt here.  The work is envisioned in five movements, though they are recorded here as one flowing work.  The notes do provide a bit of assistance to help navigate when new sections arrive.  Here is a sort of homage to the film music then done in the way 19th-century virtuosi would adapt themes from opera.    Thus we have the primary themes surrounded with exuberant, pianistic flourishes that explode from the opening fanfares of the main title.  This is coupled with the beautiful, lyrical moments which get big-hearted and full exposition here.  Engelenhoven’s performance, and transcription, capture the spirit of this music well with often great bursts of energy that encompass the full range of the piano.  The orchestral colors in Korngold’s writing will be missed a bit, but the harmonic language cuts through well here all the same with sensitive adaptations of the intense musical moments.  It creates a sort of massive pianistic tone poem where some of the edges of Korngold’s modernisms come out so well.  That fascinating blend of extended harmonic language that can shift into Romantic tunefulness works quite well here.

Engelenhoven’s love and enthusiasm for this music is apparent throughout the program.  The lyrical moments receive sensitive interpretations here.  A sense of where the music connects to the past and projects into the modern shifts of the period are also apparent here.  This is bravura pianism in that grand style one here’s in Liszt especially (music one suspects would be enthralling in Engelenhoven’s hands).  There is a crispness of articulation in the rapid passage sections throughout the album.  A sense of the music’s structure is also apparent, especially in the sonata where this matters most.  All of this is captured in gorgeous SACD sound in an impressive recording.    

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