Korngold and Beethoven CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS JOHN WILSON'S THRILLING ACCOUNT OF KORNGOLD'S SYMPHONY IN F SHARP, AND A MIXED COMPLETE BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA SET FROM IGOR LEVIT


KORNGOLD: Sinfonia of London / Wilson (Chandos CD / SACD CHSA 5220) ★★★★★

Korngold was a child prodigy, hailed as a genius by Mahler. Fleeing the Nazis he became an Oscar-winning composer of Hollywood film music– ensuring vilification from the musical establishment. His Symphony in F sharp (1954) is a fine work of late romanticism, its huge orchestra used with immense skill. This is a terrific recording with conductor John Wilson, at home in Hollywood shows tunes and the core classics, eliciting a thrilling performance from the Sinfonia of London, a famous name in the 1950s newly reformed. The Chandos engineers exploit the generous acoustic of St Augustine's Church, Kilburn to create a stupendously wide-ranging recording. The opening movement is brooding and doom-laden – floor-shaking basses – but Wilson revels in the scherzo's skittish humour and its finale's rumbustious gaiety. Wilson's Adagio, the symphony's emotional heart, is swift and surging – some will prefer Previn's (DG) sumptuous broadness – but convincing. The two short fillers are delightful.


BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATAS: Igor Levit (9 CDs Sony Classical 19075843182) ★★★★

In 2013 the Russian pianist Igor Levit chose as his debut recording Beethoven's last five sonatas, a Himalayan range in the piano repertoire. It's amongst the finest interpretations since Pollini's magisterial 1970s recordings. They are included in this complete set with the rest recorded between 2017 and early 2019. Those final five, including a thundering obsessively driven Hammerklavier worthy of Gilels, are the best in this set illuminated by Levit's crystalline tone and superb articulation captured in excellent sound. The other twenty-seven are less even: brilliant insights, idiosyncrasy and sheer wilfulness abound, sometimes in the same sonata. In Op.31 No.1 Levit captures the opening grotesquery but spins out the Adagio without noticing Beethoven's humour. Like Kovacevich (Warner) Levit excels at Beethoven's steely dynamism but repose and geniality – Op.28 Pastoral, the Op.78 and Op. 79 miniatures – sometimes evade him. Nevertheless Levit is always compulsively listenable and there's never a dull moment.

Norman Stinchcombe

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