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Ernst KŘENEK (1900-1991)
Works for Piano

Sonatine Op5 No.1 (1920)
Zwölf Variationen in drei Sätzen Op.79 (1937)
Piano piece in eleven parts Op.197 (1967)
Echoes from Austria Op.166 (1958)
Klaviersonate No.7 Op.240 (1988)
Till Alexander Körber (piano)
Recorded in the Jerger-Saal, Bruckner-Konservatorium, Linz, December 2002
CAPRICCIO 67 078 [55.44]

Gasparo’s Twelve Tone piano miniatures disc showed, to those who weren’t previously aware of it, an impressively winning Křenek whose command of the idiom was enlivened by a degree of impressionistic beauty that never failed to grip and indeed to move. Since Křenek piano discs are hardly flavour of the month but neither are they now, thank goodness, the rare commodities that they once were, it has proved a pleasure to encounter the composer in Capriccio’s age-spanning conspectus. Whereas Gasparo took 1938-54 here we range from the early 1920 Sonatine to the late Sonata of 1988, written three years before his death, and it represents nearly seventy years of concentrated compositional life.

These are superficially more immediately appealing, perhaps, than Gasparo’s austere-sounding Twelve Tone selection but oddly I like them less. I was moved by them less, as well, and it’s hard to say why. Assuredly this has nothing to do with the lissom vivacity of pianist Till Alexander Körber. In the early Sonatine for example he catches the romantic drive fused with hints of chromaticism that gives this piece its dramatic tension. The post-Romantic harmonies are quite explicit but whilst the slow movement – a sliver under two minutes in length – is incisive and full of attractive chordal development the vivace finale is a bit of a nondescript whirl. The Twelve Variations are commendably cogent – they’re grouped into three (5, 3 and 4 variations) and elliptical, tangential composition is the order of the day. The second group of three - two adagios and an allegretto – rises and crests on waves of brow-furrowing ambiguity, intensely compressed and ultimately rather bleak. The final Adagio variation seems to be slipping away but then ends on a note of absolute defiance. I can’t tell what musico-biographical forces may have been at work in this 1937 work but one can guess and they seem unignorable.

The Piano Piece in Eleven Parts (1967) jumps forward three decades to Křenek’s American years. The work’s formal symmetry is matched by concision and moments of fractious outburst (listen to the walking left hand bass of No.3!) as well as the almost pointillist lucidity of such as No.10. Echoes from Austria is a series of very short Ländler, the adduced complexity of which is suggested in the notes. Certainly this is, at its simplest and most critically crude, a bittersweet exercise but it is full of a degree of ambivalence (see the Moderato Fifth) and barely concealed vehemence – an almost frantic intensity of feeling is palpable in the last, a Larghetto-Allegro that ends in fissure and driving collapse. The Seventh Sonata (Op.240, 1988) adheres to a more introspective but also playful aesthetic, with a spare central panel, and subsequent ascending motifs of great (but never overwrought) complex simplicity. It’s an eleven-minute summation of wisdom and technical sophistication.

Körber writes helpful notes as well as steering us through the curve of Křenek’s compositional development with adroit musicality. As I said I think the greater reserves of beauty and precision lie in the Twelve Tone selection but Capriccio gives us a high vantage point over his oeuvre.

Jonathan Woolf

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