Krenek’s Orchestral Music

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KRENEK: Potpourri. 7 Orchestral Pieces. Symphony “Pallas Athene.” Tricks & Trifles / Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens, cond / Capriccio C5379

Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) often falls outside the mainstream of 20th century classical music because he was an iconoclast who followed his own muse and did not write music that was “fashionable” either to the modernists or to the neo-Romantics. Looking at my record collection, I have only two of his works in it, the Gesange des Spaten Jahres, Op. 71 No. 4: Ballade vom Fest sung by Mitsuko Shirai and the Symphonic Elegy: In Memoriam Anton Webern conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos. The sales sheet accompanying this CD (I didn’t get the booklet) states that from the beginning “Krenek stood between the sometimes antagonistic musical worlds of his mentor Franz Schreker, who wrote in the world of late Romanticism, and Arnold Schoenberg who broke new ground. So, his own development towards becoming a unique personality in modern music history progressed correspondingly slowly. In his subsequent travelling years, as a composer he was on a quest for new means of expression” His only really well-known work is the singspiel Jonny Spielt Auf, often described as jazzy when it is most certainly not, and a piece I’ve never much liked because it contains too much dialogue and I don’t speak German. The pieces on this disc range chronologically from 7 Orchestral Pieces (1924) to the Symphony “Pallas Athene” (1954).

Potpourri, from 1927, is most certainly in the Schreker style; in fact, except for a few modern harmonic touches, this is a piece that could easily be played on your local FM classical radio station. A simple theme is introduced at the outset but, after a downshift in tempo, a different theme is heard on the oboe, lyrical and effusive, with light scoring from celli and low clarinets. This piece, like Jonny Spielt Auf, has a bit of a ragtime (not jazz!) influence, but only a bit. We get a bit bogged down in this Romantic theme until the three-minute mark, when the pace picks up again and a jolly, less ragtime-sounding theme in scampering eighths takes over. To be honest, I kind of liked this piece but not so much that I was enthusiastic about it. And, at 17:51, it goes on much too long without saying enough to warrant its length. The ragtime feeling—in places, almost a cakewalk—comes and goes throughout. I will say this, though: like it or hate it, the music sounds, for the most part, more American than German. It has that “characteristically American sound” that one associates with composers like McDowell, Copland and others.

By contrast, the 7 Orchestral Pieces of 1924 sounds like Berg—more melodic and less spiky than Schoenberg or Webern, but still very much in the atonal mold. These pieces I did like, not just because of their modernity but because they are generally brief, most of them under three minutes long except for the second (“Andante”) which runs nearly six. Here, Krenek actually uses a variety of composing styles, often leaning towards tonality even when the ear picks up some quirky harmonic changes, but he doesn’t lay into tonality, and therein lies the difference. Paradoxically, I found these less likable than Potpourri because, to my ears, they sounded mostly heavy and pretentious. The music lacks the intriguing quality that one heard in Webern in addition to lacking the more natural flow one heard in Potpourri.

To give you an idea of how lost I was, without noticing that the 7 Orchestral Pieces were over I found myself in the midst of the “Pallas Athene” symphony of 1954 without even noticing it. This was a problem for Krenek: he wrote music that had dramatic gestures but was not inherently dramatic, as was the music of Beethoven and Mahler. Or, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no “there” there. Each musical pontification follows another without adding up to anything. In a way, I feel sorry for Krenek; he obviously had the instincts of an artist but could seldom focus enough to make his music sound continuous or as if it had something to say. Even for those of you who hate, for instance, the music of Webern—and it is SO abstract that I can well understand your reaction—you have to admit that, if you listen carefully (as you are probably not willing to do), you’ll hear a musical progression moving forward. Non-melodic though it may be, Webern’s scores are not static. Krenek’s scores, though sometimes full of little melodic snippets, get bogged down in rhetoric. He is really and sincerely trying to be profound, but his muse only gives him individual musical figures, not a direction or resolution.

Ironically, it is the previously unrecorded Tricks & Trifles (1945) that I found most pleasing and coherent. Yes, it consists of a large group of short pieces knitted together, but the progression makes sense and the forward movement and development is pleasing. It’s also a predominantly tonal work, which tells me that Krenek was following a blind path by trying to emulate Berg or Schoenberg. There’s a wonderful naturalness and even humor about Tricks & Trifles that eluded him in the other music here.

Of course, the lack of continuity I hear in these works could be the fault of conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens. I know absolutely nothing about him and have never heard him before, so I don’t know if some of the faults I hear here are due to his inability to give a long view of the music, but my gut reaction is that it is Krenek to blame. If, however, you respond to Krenek’s music better than I do, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this CD.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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