Korngold, Grainger Proms at St Jude-on-the Hill, London

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The Independent Culture
Though festivals come in all shapes and sizes, two important kinds may be found among their ranks: the civic celebration, typically hosted by cathedral towns, hiring famous names to bring culture to the community; and the small, independent sort, often coping with problems of resources, yet able to offer, like the Proms at St Jude-on-the-Hill, a sharp original agenda.

The latter type is rarer, and it is to north London's credit that the Proms at St Jude's, now in their fifth year and a brief walk from Golders Green tube, have become an event that can celebrate the Korngold centenary with a UK premiere. It's all done, furthermore, in the cause of charity, Music Aid producing the venture, with proceeds going to Save the Children.

Guest conductor Humphrey Burton spoke well of the cause before giving a spirited account of Ethel Smyth's overture to The Wreckers. This established a mood of good humour and showed the acoustic of this Lutyens church to be kinder and more sensitive than expected. It was a helpful environment for the first unveiling here of Korngold's Baby Serenade, of those lively, appealing pieces that for more than six years have gathered dust on a publisher's shelf.

Written in 1929 for the birth of the composer's second son, Georg, it mixed Korngold's typical opulence of harmony with the styles of jazz and German folksong. Scored for large orchestra with saxophones and banjo, it's his only work of programme music, film scores apart. In five often boisterous movements, baby arrives in the world, has wonderful toys, tells a story, and sings himself to sleep. Though billed as Korngold's Sinfonia Domestica, it lacked Richard Strauss's command of spacious pacing. It offered, instead, another taste of the authentic Korngold flavour, for which we should be thankful.

A more serious plot lay behind Korngold's Cello Concerto, a one-movement score made from music for the Bette Davis / Claude Rains film Deception. Soloist Robert Max caught its atmosphere of moody tension, and rose above sometimes heavy textures in the fast, outer sections, sensing that the weight of the piece lay at its lyrical centre. An episode of essential Korngold, this was ravishingly done, the ardent melody, heard in dialogue with the orchestra, perfectly projected through Max's velvet tone. In a form that moved so quickly through its agenda, the secret was knowing how to ring the changes. Max grasped the points of transition effortlessly and, in the finale, when the time came to thrill the audience with a running leap to a note at the top of the fingerboard, he was spot on.

Conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes, the Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra were strong in all areas and, after the interval, with the Joyful Company of Singers and baritone Christopher Foster, gave a Grainger sequence, Blithe Bells, Shenandoah et al. It was the artistic director's coup to show how the Korngold-Grainger alliance, odd on paper, could work so well in practice. But the links were there to be heard in their shared position for falling chromatic lines, and unashamed indulgence in chords of the dominant ninth.

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