When Frank Almond introduced Erich Korngold’s Piano Quintet Monday night, he called it one of the most challenging pieces he’s ever played—or heard. What he didn’t say in his introduction, however, was something that was keenly felt by the Frankly Music audience at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: playing it — and hearing it — is an absolute blast. You could see it in the faces of the performers: violinists Almond and Ilana Setapen, violist Nicholas Cords, cellist Julian Schwarz and pianist Marika Bournaki. And you could hear it in the way they dug into the lush ensembles and furious melodic lines.
Korngold — as Almond also mentioned in the introduction to the program, appropriately titled, Movie Night — was a child prodigy. His father circulated him among Europe’s inner musical circles, introducing him to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who were astonished by his skill as a pianist and composer. Korngold left his native Germany in the 1930s and devoted himself almost exclusively to movie music. But you can hear the influence of his late-Romantic mentors in this quintet, written when he was just 23 years old. It’s chamber music that aspires to a big, orchestral sound, and this group delivered. In the opening movement, the mood is alternately buoyant and contemplative, with intertwined lines that swoop and soar past each other. The probing theme of the second movement shifts expectations from phrase to phrase, adding notes off the beaten harmonic path, and the variations that follow start gently, but build into frenzied celebration. The final movement starts with an ominous exchange between unison strings and piano, offers a gypsy-tinged solo for Almond, and then shifts to bright open fifth harmonies. Korngold’s movie career was still several years ahead of him, but you can almost hear Robin Hood making his swinging entrance in the writing here. And the quintet found both the nuance and the joyful abandon in the music.
The concert worked up to the quintet with simpler and quieter music. Almond opened with some excerpts from Korngold’s music from Vienna Burgtheater’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, written when he was only twenty-one. Reduced from the orchestral score to violin and piano, you could nonetheless feel the prickly romance of Beatrice and Benedick, and the comic pomp of Dogberry. Almond then played the familiar theme from John Williams’s score to Schindler’s List, letting the matter-of-fact lament of the melody speak for itself.
The string players then performed Echoes, Bernard Hermann’s late quartet that offers a grand tour through the atmospheric style he used to enhance the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Barely rising above a mezzo-piano before the last few minutes, it’s full of mysterious silences and passages that make you feel like you’re driving along with James Stewart on that West Coast highway. Both audience and musicians enjoyed the ride.