I’m listening to Liza Ferschtman’s fine new recording on Challenge Classics of the violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. I cannot listening to it without the memory, unbidden, of the vicious reviews it received in New York, where the critic Irving Kolodin called it ‘more corn than gold’, an epithet that has stuck for seven decades.
Korngold in 1947 was trying to rebuild his pre-War reputation as a serious composer after spending a comfortable decade in Hollywood and the jackals were waiting for him to fail. The concerto, premiered by Jascha Heifetz, contained – to be fair – some fairly corny clips from recent film scores.
Olin Downes in the New York Times found that ‘the facility of the writing is matched by the mediocrity of the ideas. ‘ But it is Kolodin’s comment in the now-defunct New York Sun that killed the concerto stone-dead and, with it, any hopes that Korngold cherished of a reputational revival. He died a decade later, all but unperformed.
It took 30 years for Korngold’s music to return to the concert hall, and it was the much-maligned violin concerto that led the way, in the hands of Itzhak Perlman and his generation. Today, the concerto is not just popular but almost respectable. What struck Kolodin as corny is now regarded as core heritage, the source of the John Williams school of film composing. Nevertheless, we still can’t hear it without the critic’s killer comment coming to mind.