Krenek’s Chamber Music and Songs

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KRENEK: Double Fugue for 2 Pianos.4 3 Lieder, Op. 30a for Mezzo, Clarinet and String Quartet.1,5 Trio Phantasie. Während der Trennung.2,3 Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano. The Holy Ghost’s Ark.2 String Trio. Monologue for Clarinet.5 Double Fugue for Piano 4 Hands4 / 1Laura Aiken, sop; 2Bernarda Fink, mezzo; 3Florian Boesch, bar; The Ernst Krenek Ens.; Anthony Spiri, 4Nina Tichman, pno; 5Matthias Schorn, cl / Toccata Classics TOCC 0295

This is the first of what will apparently be a series of CDs devoted to the chamber music of Ernst Krenek (1900-91), a pupil of Franz Schreker. The music on this disc covers no less than 41 years, from the early double fugues for piano written in 1917-18 for his teacher, Franz Schreker, to the 1956-58 Monologues for Clarinet. Only the double fugues, however, are first recordings.

Like Schreker’s own music, these early piano works by Krenek are somewhat Romantic yet use some of the more advanced harmonies of Wagner, Reger and Scriabin. It is attractive music and interesting in its own way, however, and it helps that our duo pianists, Anthony Spiri and Nina Tichman, play with energy and commitment. By the time one reaches the three lieder for mezzo-soprano (sung here by soprano Laura Aiken, who has an attractive timbre but an unsteady wobble in the voice…how typical nowadays!), clarinet and string quartet from 1924, however, Krenek’s harmonic language has already become somewhat edgier and more atonal, almost sounding like early Alban Berg (and, oddly enough, a bit like Schoenberg’s Erwärtung), and his scoring for strings is unusual in its “edgy” sound. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!

In the Trio Phantasie from 1929, however, we hear Krenek returning to a less harmonically stringent style, mixing in more tonal, lyrical melodies. Indeed, some of his harmonic changes in the first movement seem more influenced by Debussy than by Scriabin or the progressive Germans at first. When the music moves into the second-movement “Allegro agitato,” the harmony becomes somewhat spikier, but then it moves back towards tonality later in the same movement.

The 1933 song Während der Trennung for mezzo, baritone and piano also walks a tightrope between tonality and atonality. Krenek departs from the dodecaphonic composers (but not from Schreker, his early model) in writing grateful, melodic tunes for the singers, keeping the spikier harmonies in the piano part, but I can well imagine many singers having a hard time “hearing” their parts since the harmony doesn’t match what the piano is playing.

With the Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, apparently put together from music he wrote in both 1946 and 1955 (I didn’t have liner notes to download with this album), Krenek walks a similar harmonic tightrope, although he gives the two top instruments somewhat edgier, less inherently melodic lines to play. He also sometimes makes the violin join the edgy piano part by playing pizzicato, at other times having the instrument play very high trills or “answer” the clarinet’s music with commentary of its own. And Krenek is uncompromisingly atonal (although not 12-tone) in the 1941 setting of The Holy Ghost’s Ark, sung excellently by early-music specialist Bernarda Fink.

Yet even when writing atonally, Krenek holds one’s interest because his music is logical and has a sense of forward momentum, i.e., phrasing, something that is clearly not always true of much of his contemporaries’ more modern scores. One can hear this clearly in the string trio from 1949-61 (although I think most of it was written in the earlier year and just revised in 1961). By contrast, I just plain disliked the Monologue for solo clarinet. Despite the logical construction of the music, it just seemed to me as though Krenek was making up effects to startle the ear.

With the double fugue for piano four hands from 1917, we return to early Krenek, although this piece seems quite bitonal in comparison to its sister-piece from 1918 that started out the disc. In toto, however, an interesting look into the mind of a musical iconoclast.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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