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Ernst KŘENEK (1900-1991)
Twelve-tone Miniatures

Twelve Short Piano Pieces written in the Twelve-Tone Technique Op 83 (1938)
Eight Piano Pieces Op 110 (1946)
Twenty Miniatures Op 139 (1954)
Robert Blumenthal (piano)
Recorded at Allgood Productions, Atlanta, GA, undated (1997?)
GASPARO GG-1016 [47.07]


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Křenek’s absorption of 12-tone music took practical form on his emigration to America. He published Music Here And Now in 1939 – a revision of his earlier 1937 German text entitled Über Neue Musik. As Roger Sessions maintained, for Křenek promotion of the system was “an artistic religion.” As these works show however this was not mere pedagogy, no dry as dust laying out of wares. On the contrary the 1938 Twelve Short Piano Pieces written in the Twelve-Tone Technique is a consistently involving and illuminating set of miniatures. In the final result this set does not adhere rigorously to 12-tone Schoenbergian theory (in that it repeats previously stated tones) but the pieces do achieve a beauty and almost impressionistic life that is constantly exciting and engaging. Each piece has a descriptive title – A Boat, Slowly Sailing, On The High Mountains, Bells In The Fog and so on – that might seem to take the pieces into the realm of late Romanticism or Impressionism – which is surely the point. And they also guide the ear, as well, suggestively. Thus the opening Dancing Toys skips deliciously for its minute length and Walking on a Stormy Day is full of bristle and incipient eruption. Indeed The Sailing Boat, Reflected In The Pond achieves an utter independence of vision that more than once put me in mind of someone like Takemitsu. The veiling of the bells in the penultimate Bells In The Fog seems to absorb Debussy into its bloodstream and makes for a most attractive elaboration of technique whilst remaining essentially true to its didactic purpose. It helps that the miniatures are so beautifully effective.

The 1946 Eight Piano Pieces is again a less rigid demonstration of the Schoenbergian process. Each piece is named – Etude, Toccata, and Waltz etc – and, as the composer hoped, one need not even recognise the set for what it is, merely, in his words "become aware of a certain characteristic regularity of the design." And that’s precisely what one does encounter, from the brief but utterly gripping Toccata to the ghostly Nocturne and the splendid Rondo finale. Finally there is the rather more austere Twenty Miniatures of 1954. They’re based on the same tone-row and form a kind of theme and variations. Though clearly less abrasive and jagged than Schoenbergian procedure might ordinarily demand there is still some tough writing scattered throughout the set, though one can also note the numerous moments of arresting luminosity. Of them all the ninth, an Adagio, has a shaft of elliptical delicacy that simply stops one in one’s tracks. I think it’s true to say that his contrapuntalism is at its most sophisticated and sovereign in this set.

Perhaps the title of the album might put off some readers. But with playing this understanding and adroit, and with music that fuses technique, education and poetry with such distilled beauty – not too strong a word – one can only hope that Křenek’s functional music (in the best sense of the word) will continue to educate and to inspire.

Jonathan Woolf

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