Korzhev Plays Krenek

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KRENEK: Piano Sonata No. 1 in Eb. Sonatinas, Op. 5. Nos. 1-5. 6 Piano Pieces / Mikhail Korzhev, pno / Centaur CRC 3968

Although pianist Stanislav Khristenko has already started a series of CDs dedicated to Ernst Krenek’s piano music, Russian pianist Mikhail Korzhev here throws his hat in the ring with this new release of the composer’s earliest works, written in 1919-20. They are quite fascinating pieces informing the melodic contours and elegance of the First Vienna School with harmonic shifts and overtones from the second. These pieces, then, show a young composer who obviously chose to write in a semi-conventional style for his time in the hopes that his music would catch on and make his name,  but in the long run the music was less tuneful and somewhat more complex than audiences were willing to absorb.

The modern chords used by Krenek in these pieces are not “rootless” ones, as many followers of Stravinsky used, but rather altered harmonies within the chords. It’s not quite atonal, particularly in the melodic line which, taken from his harmonic base, sounds very Schubertian, but listening to the left hand figures by themselves can be a bit disorienting. At times Krenek uses a running, single-note bass line that is entirely tonal, but for the most part his harmonies are multilayered and constantly shifting. This can be quite disorienting for the average classical buff, which is why you don’t hear his music played very often on classical FM stations. (Heaven forbid they should push the envelope and risk losing their “heart, mind and spirit” listeners.)

In the first movement of the Sonata No. 1, for instance, there is a particularly thorny and exciting passage a little past the halfway mark in which Krenek runs up the scale with a series of thick chords. I found it interesting to compare what he did here to, say, the late sonatas of Scriabin, which although quite modern use more “open” chording, often with augmented fifths or other devices that open the chords. Krenek’s chords are more congested in sound and structure, but by and large he follows a rather conventional form for his music while late Scriabin constantly pushes the envelope, making his melodic lines follow the lead of the harmony rather than being independent of it. Looking at the score, I can see that Krenek was also very clever in that some of the underlying harmonies are actually played by the right hand in between the notes of the melody.

Yet there is an organic wholeness to this music. Note, for instance, the slow second movement of the sonata, where although the harmonies are thick they do indeed “follow” the melodic line. It’s just a different way of solving the problem of fusing elements of two disparate musical styles into a whole. Krenek generally sticks to conventional rhythms, yet even here there are changes. In many passages, one loses the beat. Written in 3/8 time, he never actually changed the meter but, rather, managed to write some of the music “across bar lines” to give the illusion of a shifting time signature. The third-movement “Rondo,” also in 3/8 time, emerges as a lively waltz with moments of conventional “prettiness” mixed in with the thornier aspects of the score. Although there are no tempo changes, this last movement of the sonata has several key changes, including one very extreme one from Eb major to E major, then back again.

Throughout this and the other performances on this CD, Korzhev plays like a man possessed, using the familiar Russian style of pianism to give both heft and emotional energy to these performances. He misses nothing in terms of the often quite detailed dynamics and phrase markings (such as the “Flieβenz, tanzhaft, rubato” instruction in the middle of this movement), the result being about as “pure” a reading of the score as you could imagine, yet infused with considerable energy.

One shouldn’t assume that the Sonatinas are much “lighter” music despite their sometimes jolly, running melodic lines. On the contrary, the harmonies here are sometimes more complex than in the Sonata, using more augmented chords and doing so in a more “open” manner which lets the listener hear more of what is going on. Strictly from a popular appeal standpoint, however, it’s hard to say if Krenek was thinking of greater accessibility, since the music is clearly not that easy to assimilate. In the slow first movement of the Sonatina No. 2, he moves away from the German model in order to use a series of what I would call “chime-like” chords in a manner recalling Debussy, who at this point had only been dead for a year or two.

By and large, I’d describe this music as thoughtful with an element of entertainment rather than entertaining with an element of intellectual density; only the final “Gavotte en Rondeau” of the second Sonatina is a really catchy piece. My gut feeling is that Krenek was not trying to appeal to the masses, but rather simply trying to fuse elements of the two Viennese schools in a way that was at least satisfactory to him, occasionally falling back on Debussy whose opening up of harmony helped feed into the music of both Scriabin and Schoenberg, both of whom took it to new yet different levels. However you hear it, though, it is certainly different from anyone else’s. I can’t think of another composer who was doing what Krenek did, not only at this particular time but even later on, yet for him it was just a springboard to a more complex and much more personal style that didn’t owe anything to Schubert. In the first movement of the third Sonatina, he plays with the rhythm in a way that toys with the listener, leading him or her astray in several places yet always somehow returning to a set beat. The second movement of this work has a sort of odd, nervous energy about it and the third movement, though marked “Lento,” is actually quite fast. Apparently, Krenek had an entirely different concept of “Lento” than most composers did.

The fifth Sonatina is the latest work on this CD, written in 1921, and here we can detect the mature Ernst Krenek starting to emerge. Written in one continuous movement lasting but 7:28, the musical material is more condensed and less conventionally melodic than any of its predecessors. It is also the most fragmented-sounding. The music frequently stops dead, then when it resumes Krenek is on an entirely different tack. These are the first commercial recordings of Sonatinas 2-5. The six piano pieces of 1920, though having no opus number, are in much the same vein as the first sonata.

This is clearly an outstanding album in terms of both musical content and performance quality, one of Centaur’s best releases. Hats off as well to sound engineer Ruslana Oreshinkova for capturing Korzhev’s piano in absolutely splendid, natural sound, with no excess reverb.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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