Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Kings Row [Varèse Sarabande]

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This recording and the music on it have an interesting history. In the five decades since his death, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's reputation has become most closely associated with the swashbucklers of Errol Flynn, mostly because those movies -- Captain Blood, The Prince and The Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk -- are among the most frequently revived and reshown of the movies that Korngold scored. In his own time, however, his greatest success, in terms of eliciting a direct response from the public, came with Kings Row (1942), a complex piece of Americana in which the Austrian-born and raised Korngold proved that he could generate music every bit as beguilingly "American" -- and that Americans could respond to warmly -- as such native-born figures as Aaron Copland or Virgil Thomson. The composer received thousands of letters from moviegoers who felt compelled to either compliment Korngold or inquire about aspects of the music that he'd written for Kings Row. Over the ensuing decades, the movie's reputation rose and fell in cycles, mostly in association with the political success of its co-star, Ronald Reagan, but the score remained beloved of film music enthusiasts, and in late July of 1979, it became the first Korngold score to get re-recorded in full for a commercial release when Charles Gerhardt led the National Philharmonic Orchestra in sessions at Walthamstow Town Hall in London, produced by Korngold's son George. That recording, originally done for Chalfont Records, was later taken over by Varese Sarabande for its CD edition, and one can tell that the approach to packaging and mastering the CD dates from the early days of the format -- following the composer's own plan, Gerhardt broke the music into a two-part suite totalling 48 minutes of music, with the result that there are only two chapters on the CD. The accompanying breakdown of material is only approximate, and one wishes that the producers had taken the same approach that the producers of, say, most recordings of Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony or Ein Heldenleben do, assigning chapter codes to the different sections of the suite. Other than that, however, the disc is worthwhile in every serious respect -- Gerhardt captures the delicate nature of the music (which, apart from the memorably bold fanfare, written by the composer before he even knew the nature of the film's plot or subject, is extremely subtle and varied) and succeeds in bringing out the most finely nuanced moments. Kornngold was stimulated by the complex, intertwining stories of the characters in ways that he seldom managed to be in his film work, and the result was a score that rivals his operas in richness and complexity. Gerhardt and the younger Korngold did well by his music here -- the sound is full and well-balanced, with a pleasing dimensionality to the stereo separation. The textures are not as bright as that of, say, the old London Phase 4 Stereo releases, but are much more natural, and, indeed, this is one of the more successful early digital recordings of the late '70s -- it avoids all of the pitfalls of a similar effort, mounted at around the same time, at cutting a new account of Bernard Herrmann's North by Northwest, which came out as distinctly under-recorded.

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