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Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
Alpbach Quintett Op. 180 (1962) [22.10]
Symphonische Musik fur neun Soloinstrumente Op. 11 (1922) [24.43]
Peterson Quartet; Wieland Welzel (percussion)
Rosetti Blaserquintett; Andreas Wylezol (double-bass)
rec. Studio 10, Berlin Radio, 21 May 2003 (Quintett); 4-5 May 2003 (Symphonische Musik)
CAPRICCIO 67 176 [46.55]

Whether orchestral or chamber the music of Ernst Krenek has not exactly made it into the repertoire and I’m not sure if this disc will especially help the cause. This is through no fault of these superb performers who are utterly committed to making the music work. The same goes for the record company whose dedication to the promotion of Krenek can be seen from their listings. That said, the short playing time of this disc may not endear it to many. The music is in fact very fine and rewards repeated listening. The performances are outstanding. It’s just that, as my wife commented, it’s some of the hardest music to concentrate on that she has ever heard. It’s contrapuntal, busy and mostly dodecaphonic. The ideas are not difficult in themselves but the way they are intermixed with so many others is not always easy to follow. As for the form it is straightforward and in the booklet notes he writes: "the structure (of Symphonische Musik fur neun Soloinstrumente) is entirely uncomplicated and quite comprehensible upon first listening, to such a degree even that I am of the opinion that no analysis is necessary".

In 1940, his good friend the Greek conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos was to write to him thinking of Krenek’s success in the 1920s with the first two symphonies, the ‘Symphonic Music’ and the opera ‘Jonny spielt auf’. He told Krenek that he had drifted too far away from his audiences, not the audiences from him. In response the composer attempted to do something about this schism.

The works recorded here are well matched and spread over a forty year period so it’s interesting to compare them.

There is no doubt that the earlier ‘Symphonic Music’ is the easier work to grasp and assimilate. It falls into two exactly equal movements and is a product of the composer’s earlier style much admired by Mitropoulos. The scoring is for two violins, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon - in other words a chamber orchestra. It is not unlike Alban Berg’s Chamber Symphony but less complex both to the listener and I think to the performers - although I’ve not had access to the score. The scoring varies magically and solo instruments may be exposed to play something like a romantic melody. There’s an example in the flute part in the second movement. The two movements have no Italian speed indications. Both include a variety of tempi, with the first movement predominantly fast and the second slow. This begins with a gloomy double bass solo which might almost be comical were it not for the fact that it bears a distant family resemblance to Mahler’s 1st Symphony, movement three. The line is treated fugally, at first on strings, the volume never really rising. Then, like a fresh mountain stream a contrasting solo flute takes over, soon to be accompanied by the rest of the wind. I mention this because for me the first five minutes or so of this work amount to some of the most sensitive music by Krenek or any dodecaphonic composer I know. Dare I say that from 4.54 the harmonies are almost romantic? The tempo gradually builds using the dotted rhythms heard right at the start of movement one.

By 1962 Krenek had moved on again. In comparison the ‘Alpbach Quintett’ (Alpbach is a Tyrolean village) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon with percussion is a tougher nut to crack. It is a dance piece using serial technique and was choreographed by Yvonne Georgi. Its form is especially interesting. Back in 1922 Krenek had had his 1st Symphony successfully performed and it follows a unique plan of nine shortish movements, covering a thirty minute span, which were linked, not however altogether clearly by material and related tempo. In the ‘Alpbach Quintett’, over one hundred and seventy opus numbers further down the line, we have eleven, even shorter movements, six marked with roman numerals and with the even numbered sections called Intermezzi dividing them up. Each of these is scored for a different woodwind instrument, each of which is accompanied by a ‘matching’ percussion instrument. For example the horn associated with hunting is placed with the militaristic side-drum. The silky clarinet, is paired slightly differently with the contrasting woodblock and the odd flourish on a variety of percussion. The work’s structure according to Meret Forster in his valuable booklet notes "accentuates a symmetric general design that corresponds to the tempo instructions". The longest movement, at almost four minutes, is the central panel, movement five. So, the piece as a whole is beautifully balanced and satisfying as a form and so delicately orchestrated. Again I emphasize that it is superbly played and ideally recorded. The style of this work though often witty and virtuosic is post-Webernian pointillism and it is in this piece that it is hard to keep one’s concentration, although the short movements and the regularly changing colours do help. The work now seems dated despite the fact that one can admire it on all of the above levels.

For those of you who are following this series, this disc of rarely heard and recorded Krenek is obviously a must. For the inquisitive outsider, of which I am definitely one, I would recommend that you start your ‘Krenek experience’ with the symphonies recorded complete on CPO.

Gary Higginson


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