KORNGOLD: Music from "The Sea Hawk." Carol Wetzel, soprano; Utah Symphony Chorus, Utah Symphony, Varujan Kojian conducting. Varese Sarabande VCD-47304 (CD) $19.98.
Recently I had some unkind words for Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, comparing it unfavorably with his music for the 1940 Errol Flynn swashbuckler "The Sea Hawk."The comparison wasn't accidental because, together with his unforgettable "Kings Row" music, "The Sea Hawk" is perhaps Korngold's finest work for the screen (though he himself was always particularly fond of his music for "Between Two Worlds").
Now from Varese Sarabande and the Utah Symphony comes what is by far the most extensive representation this score has had on records. That means over twice as much music as on the two Charles Gerhardt albums on RCA heretofore the reigning champs in performances of, if anything, even greater panache. And if the present disc cannot match RCA's astonishing depth and solidity of sound, it is impressive enough on its own superior, I should say, to the same team's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" of some years back.
As such, it stands as a fitting monument to not only the elder Korngold but also his record-producer son George, whose last major project this was before his death last November. (He was also in charge of the Gerhardt albums.)
Once again Varujan Kojian proves a superb choice as conductor, capturing everything from the surge of the Main Title (later to reappear, with chorus, when Flynn and his men retake the ship) to the Viennese richness of the love music. Carol Wetzel does a beautiful job with Donna Maria's song (later incorporated into the Korngold art-song canon as "Old Spanish Song," which of course it isn't). And although the chorus might have been recorded more atmospherically, better that than not having them here at all.
As with all of Korngold's film music, I am continually amazed by his ability to underscore action and dialogue and still retain a valid musical structure obviously a holdover from his operatic training, but imagine doing it to predetermined visuals! At the same time this is wonderfully textured music, as skillful in its sultry depiction of the Spanish galleys or the Panamanian death march as in the pageantry of the Elizabethan court. And when leitmotifs are repeated, it is almost always with some important difference.
In short, as is the case with the film it accompanies, there is always something happening in this score. And if you've any taste for the "golden age" of Hollywood, or just plain late Viennese romanticism, I suggest you let it happen to you.
CORTES: Capriccio for Woodwind Quartet; Rick's Harpsichord Fantasy. WOLKING: Suite for Baroque Ensemble; Woodwind Quintet No. 1. Allegria Quintet (Jane Morrison, flute; Russell Harlow, clarinet; Robert Stephenson, oboe; Mitchell Morrison, bassoon; Jeffry Kirschen, horn); Salt Lake Chamber Ensemble (Erich Graf, flute; John Thompson, violin; Mitchell Morrison, bassoon; Ricklen Nobis, harpsichord). Crystal S-650 (LP) $9.98.
Despite the listing above, it is Henry Wolking's music that gets top billing on this new Crystal release, coupling the work of two University of Utah composers.
Until his death in 1984 Ramiro Cortes was of course the better known, and with few exceptions his music here seldom falls below a certain level. But for most listeners I suspect it is Wolking's Suite for Baroque Ensemble, written in 1982 for the Salt Lake Chamber Ensemble, that is going to be the prime attraction.
Witty and inventive, it falls just this side of neo-classical Stravinsky (e.g., "Pulcinella," "Dumbarton Oaks") in its 20th century updating of 18th century forms. And while the performance, by an interim version of the SLCE, might be a bit more polished, it does convey the music's sense of fun as well as its engaging vitality.
Cortes' "Rick's Harpsichord Fantasy," for SLCE harpsichordist Ricklen Nobis, is an even more advanced view of the baroque, at once moodier in its exploration of a troubled soul yet more intricately constructed, with a sharper edge. That the "Rick" in question is not just the harpsichordist is hinted at via the inclusion of some themes from "Casablanca" (the "Marseillaise," etc.). At the same time Nobis succeeds in putting his own stamp on it, in a strongly recorded performance.
Ditto the same composer's "Capriccio" for Woodwind Quartet, from 1971, a sharply profiled piece, here in a performance to match. The music itself is playful in the modern French manner, but again with a dark substratum, all skillfully realized by the first four members of the Allegria Quintet.
Whether that group has any identity apart from this release, I cannot say. But they leave a first-rate impression both here and in the Wolking Quintet (likewise from 1971), a more consciously modernistic essay but one that sounds less sure of itself than the things he has been writing lately. But none of these pieces really outlasts its welcome, and how many "serious" campus collections can you say that about?