Khristenko Plays Krenek’s Odd Music

cover - TOCC0399

KRENEK: Toccata & Chaconne, Op. 13. Eine Kleine Suite von Stücken. 2 Suites, Op. 26. Piano Sonata No. 5. Sechs Vermessene / Stanislav Khristenko, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0399

Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko presents here Vol. 2 of his survey of the piano music of Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). Those familiar with Krenek’s compositional style will, of course, need no introduction to him, but for those who are unfamiliar with his music, it was very modern-German in style and scope. Like Hindemith, Krenek—a pupil of Franz Schreker—used a lot of bitonality and occasional atonality, but never crossed over into full-out atonal or serial music. Thus in the opening Toccata & Chaconne, the listener feels enveloped by a pianist playing in two keys at the same time without ever going all the way over to atonality or resolving the clash either. What I liked about it, particularly the toccata, was its vital rhythmic thrust; at least in Khristenko’s hands, the music almost bounces off the walls in a sort of moto perpetuo.

As a sort of music joke, Krenek then composed the Little Suite, using variations on the theme of the above and splitting it into six small movements in an imitation of dance forms (the last of them is a foxtrot, and a very clever one at that). This is followed by the Two Suites of 1924, much more serious works. One of the problems I have with Krenek is that, though his music is well written, it tends towards the turgid without offering very much to appeal to the listener, as in the case of Max Reger. I did, however, like the opposing two-handed runs in the fast part of the opening movement of the first suite, and the concluding Allegretto is another sort of fox trot.

Interestingly, the Piano Sonata No. 5, though very much in Krenek’s bitonal style, is actually rhythmically lively and uses at least halfway attractive themes, which Khristenko plays with wonderful lift and drive. Though the development is somewhat thorny, here Krenek’s use of lighter, almost dance-like rhythm holds one’s interest better than in some of his other works. But yes, the music does get rather thick at times, for instance near the end of the otherwise accessible first movement. The second movement isn’t too far out, either, but then there’s the third movement with its jagged, asymmetrical rhythms, beat displacements and persistently bitonal progressions. I had a strange reaction to this piece in that I liked each movement individually but felt that, somehow, it didn’t add up to a cohesive piano sonata. So shoot me.

Ah, but then we reach the Sechs Vermessene of 1958, and this is a real odd gem, a suite of six kaleidoscopic miniatures that sound for all the world like Webern. The back cover inlay to this album claims that they sound “as if advanced musical modernism were meeting the freest of free jazz,” but without a scintilla of a jazz beat I have to disagree. What they do sound like are pieces that Krenek improvised into being, perhaps while recording them on tape, and then transcribed them for publication. That is certainly possible, but one most remember that not all improvised music is jazz-related.

Nonetheless, even with the weak moments in the music mentioned above, this is clearly a fascinating album, perhaps more representative of Krenek’s musical thinking in a nutshell than any other single disc I’ve heard. He may well have been more a craftsman than a genius, but taking this album in toto one is impressed by his range. Even when he’s not great, he at least never really fails.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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