Magazine article Gramophone

Ernst Krenek: Philip Clark Is Impressed by the Czech-Austrian-American's Piano Sonatas but Perplexed by His Symphonic Output

Magazine article Gramophone

Ernst Krenek: Philip Clark Is Impressed by the Czech-Austrian-American's Piano Sonatas but Perplexed by His Symphonic Output

Article excerpt

Chronology go hang. I totally get Stanislav Khristenko's decision to open his disc of Ernst Krenek s solo piano music with the Second Piano Sonata. Written in 1928, this three-movement work is like a file-index system of everything we've ever been told about the aesthetic scope of Krenek's music. He would subsequently dismiss the piece as a muddled montage of Schubert, Tchaikovksy and Schumann refracted through the prism of ala mode surrealistic Stravinskian collage. But his sonata is far smarter than Krenek realised.

That Krenek did not know Ives's Concord Sonata feels inconceivable listening to the Romantic core of the sonata's first-movement Allegretto getting smudged by swells of lusty bitonal harmonies, with an occasional hint of ragtime in the bass. Ives published the Concord in 1919. Krenek was living still in Vienna when he wrote his sonata, two years after his so-called 'jazz' opera Jonny spielt auf (and a full 10 years before he emigrated to the US). Did he know the Ives? Evidence is hard to pin down either way. But his piquant chord voicings, and the rhetoric that flows from throwing designer-catchy tonal material to the bitonal wolves, is emphatically more Ivesian than anything to do with Stravinsky. And Khristenko's free-spirited rubato and rude attack imply he made that same connection.

Flip forwards exactly six decades, to Krenek's Piano Sonata No 7--written in 1988, three years before his death--and every ounce of gestural flab is squeezed away. At times the textures are hardly there. Ghostly chorales tint the canvas. A jaunty scherzo drops by unannounced, all this activity compressed inside an 11-minute 12-tone structure. Krenek's Piano Sonata No 3 (1943)--the one Glenn Gould especially admired--is given a performance I feel sure Gould would have admired. Khristenko breathes life through Krenek's circuit board of 12-tone canons and wiry counterpoint. This performance is electric.

The other pieces--the Baroque-based Little Suite (1922), the Funf Klavierstucke (1925), the postcard nostalgia of Echoes from Austria (1958)--might feel compositionally sketchy and slight but you never doubt that Krenek instinctively knew how to make a piano sing or moan. Uncertainties hang over his symphonies though. Symphony No 1 was written in 1922, when he was still under the influence of his teacher Franz Schreker; the sequence peters out 27 years later with the Fifth, composed in 1949. Why did Krenek continue writing piano sonatas right to the end but not symphonies? Perhaps he wasn't much of a symphonist. Certainly none of these symphonies entirely convinces. And add in CPO's orchestral 'fillers'--a Concerto grosso for string trio and orchestra from 1924 and a Potpourri from 1927--and a picture emerges of a composer curiously ill at ease with the orchestra.

CPO's cycle has history. Symphonies Nos 1, 2, 3and 5and the Concerto grosso were all released during the early 1990s in performances by Takao Ukigaya and the Hanover NDR Radio PO. The Fourth Symphony (and Potpourri)were recorded by the same orchestra under CPO's house conductor Alun Francis a decade later only after the score, presumed lost, showed up in 2001. (The set doesn't include the Symphony for Wind and Percussion, Kleine Symphonyor Symphony Pallas Athene. …

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