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Alexander KREIN (1883-1951)
Songs from the Ghetto

Elegy Op.16 (1913) 1
Jewish Melody Op.43 (1928) 2
Three Songs from the Ghetto Op.29 (1929) 3
Poème-Quatuor Op.9 (1909) 4
Two Hebrew Songs Op.39 (1926) 5
Five Preludes Op.3 (1903-06) 6
Aria Op.41 (1927) 7
Jewish Sketches Op.12 (1909) 8
Adrian Summerhayes (violin) 1 7
Joseph Spooner (cello) 1 2
Jonathan Powell (piano) 1 2 3 5 6 7
Loré Lixenberg (mezzo soprano) 3 5
Elizabeth Drew (clarinet) 8
Almira String Quartet 4 8
Recorded ASV, Macclesfield, January – May 2001
ASV CD DCA 1154 [69.42]

 

ASV has here revived the posthumous fortunes of Alexander Krein, born in Novgorod in 1883. His was a musical Jewish family and he was one of seven brothers, three of whom pursued musical careers, one of them, David, as a violinist. Alexander Krein entered the Moscow Conservatory at fourteen, taking composition lessons from Taneyev amongst others, saw his first works into print (as early as 1901) and carved out something of a reputation as a composer of chamber music. When he joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music he began to weave such music into the established orthodox chamber works of his training - and some feature on this disc. He taught at his alma mater for a number of years before, after the 1917 Revolution, assuming some musico-political positions and later becoming a member of the jury of the State Publishing House. At the end of that decade, just before the purges (during which David, his brother, committed suicide), he wrote his last overtly Jewish inspired work, the opera Zagmuk. All the works recorded here date from 1903-1929; the last, the Three Songs from the Ghetto were written concurrently with Zagmuk.

To the question ‘what was Krein like as a composer?’ one should note that influences are distinct but certainly not overpowering of his talent. By the time of the attractive Elegy of 1913 with which the disc begins one can hear an admixture of late nineteenth century Russian and burgeoning French impressionism – though the elegiac material is too noble and stately really to assimilate the latter influence, if influence it is. It’s the slightly earlier Poème-Quatuor that strikes a more immediately impressive note. This is a well-constructed nineteen–minute work that utilises his considerable powers of construction. It’s also highly evocative writing, distinctly impressionist in cast and shot through with Scriabin’s influence. The lyrical sections are reached with imperceptible eloquence, the tremolandos full of colour, the harmonies piquant and ear catching but never merely decorative though some do sound slightly diffuse. The work ends with affectionate simplicity and it’s a fine work and deserves to be heard.

The 1928 Jewish Melody for cello and piano is one of those last Jewish works that he wrote in the later 1920s; harmonies are sophisticated but the work is brief. The Three Songs from the Ghetto, from one year later, comprise an opening song that is communing and withdrawn and a second that has some soaring declamation of an overwrought lyric. I admired the essentially reflective vocal line and the busy piano part and the excellence of the piano postlude. The last of the three settings, Tears Welled Up, is more recognisably Jewish in its melismatic impress though it rather lacks the distinction of its companion songs. The Two Hebrew Songs are intriguing. The first is cosmopolitan with any Jewish edges smoothed out, Krein making a virtue of an assimilationist aesthetic here, or that’s what it seems like. The second is avuncular and broad shouldered, not least in its politicised reference to the Red Star on the singer’s cap. He five Preludes were his Op 3 and delve back to the period between 1903-06. They are short, slow, romantic, charming but no more. There is a sublimated, rather generalised fervour that makes one think that young Krein’s heart wasn’t quite in them. The primary influence is Tchaikovsky (especially in the first Andantino) and it’s really only the second Andantino that hints at more complex material with its restless harmonies and assertive use of the bass.

The 1927 Aria was written in memory of his brother David, a suicide. The violin – David’s own instrument of course – opens in its middle register, keening and muted before ranging emotively, unsettled. Even when the fiddle turns to the lower register Krein writes no consoling melody and the music remains beyond the touch of easy acceptance. The Jewish Sketches of 1909 were dedicated to Krein’s parents and are in three short movements. Here, early in his career, he had yet to do what he did with the Hebrew Songs. In the earlier work the strong klezmer influences are readily apparent though nicely integrated and not subordinated – Krein’s father Abram was Lithuanian by birth and a klezmer musician and folklorist and the lineage is apparent, the salute undeniable. The Almira Quartet are here joined by clarinettist Elizabeth Drew and they relish the second of the sketches in particular where, over tremolando strings, the clarinet grows towards a klezmer melody. There are also fine, strong unison passages for strings and a particularly expressive role for cello. The final sketch is nicely motoric with fluttering first violin, warm inner voicings and liquid clarinet and a concluding upward flourish.

The explicatory notes, to which I’m indebted, are by Jonathan Powell who, together with Joseph Spooner, was pretty much responsible for the whole disc. The song texts are here, sound quality is excellent and in natural perspective with performances to match.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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