Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
Complete Piano Concertos - Vol. 1
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp major, Op. 18 (1923) [30:24]
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 81 (1937) [24:51]
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 107 (1946) [12:58]
Mikhail Korzhev (piano)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 12-13 September 2015, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys,
Monmouth, UK

I suspect many of us came to the music of Ernst Krenek via his opera Jonny spielt auf, recorded as part of Decca’s Entartete Musik series. What a revelation that was, yet it’s just one of the composer’s many works that span all genres. Not surprisingly it’s Toccata Classics, well known for winkling out less-familiar repertoire, that’s embarked on this pioneering project to record Krenek’s piano concertos. At the keyboard is the Russian pianist Mikhail Korzhev, who has already given us a mouth-watering selection of Krenek’s works for solo piano (Phoenix Edition 129). On the podium is Kenneth Woods, whose traversal of Hans Gál’s symphonies alerted us all to the music of that inexplicably neglected composer. All four have been reviewed on these pages: No.1; No. 2; No. 3; and No. 4. These individual issues are also available as a 2-CD set (Avie AV2322).

Thanks to the jazz-influenced Jonny Krenek was one of many artists accused of degeneracy by the Nazis; he eventually emigrated to the United Sates in 1938, where he added teaching to his skills as a writer and composer. His varied worklist charts the development of music in the twentieth century, including a handful of electronic pieces written between 1956 and 1971. The three concertos recorded here reflect that eclecticism, moving from the lyrical No. 1 (1923) to the serial No. 2 (1937) and then to the devil-may care brilliance of No. 3 (1946).

In his booklet essay music historian Peter Tregear notes that the composer and pianist Eduard Erdmann (1896-1958) was the driving force behind Krenek’s First Piano Concerto; indeed, he was the soloist at the premiere in December 1923. Cast in four movements the work delights from its very first, doodling bars. Resolutely tonal it has a warmth and amplitude that, while rooted in a more Romantic age, is no less enjoyable for that.

The English Symphony, which began life as the English String Orchestra in 1978, is a very decent band whose alert and sensitive accompaniment is a pleasure to hear. Woods is a model of discretion, allowing Korzhev all the time and space he needs to elaborate on Krenek’s engaging tunes and fleeting baroqueries. After the good-natured Moderato comes the Allegro agitato, whose nicely contained virtuosity suggests a work of metropolitan suavity designed to stimulate as well as entertain. It’s a very distinctive and oddly seductive sound-world, the music economically scored yet always colourful and, at times, surprisingly inward.

Korzhev is not a self-aggrandising pianist, so one gets the full measure of Krenek's imaginative writing. For instance, his light and pensive pianism in the little Adagio is just delightful; the concerto has a chamber-like intimacy here, and both soloist and conductor calibrate their responses accordingly. Even the vigorous Allegro moderato (Tempo di Menuetto) is judiciously done. The witty conversations between piano and orchestra are a treat, and that artfully introduced dance tune - heralded by Korzhev at 7:20 – morphs into a bouncy little number that had me grinning from ear to ear.

What a terrific start to this programme. Apart from the fine music-making the recording – engineered by Ben Connellan – is full, detailed and well balanced. The concert hall at Wyastone Leys proves as grateful an acoustic as ever, with the listener comfortably ensconced in the best possible seat. Even the dodecaphonic second concerto, commissioned by the Concertgebouw to celebrate their 50th anniversary, comes across with a degree of character and feeling that’s sure to endear it to those who normally fight shy of serialism.

Indeed, the Andante dolcissimo, celeste – the start of which seems to be materialise from nowhere – has a stubborn skein of lyricism that accords with Tregear’s assertion that Krenek was more of an explorer than an obsessive where such techniques were concerned. That said, the orchestral writing has plenty of pith – just sample the Allegro assai, con ferocità – and it's clear this music holds no terrors for the ESO. Indeed, those dark, brassy interjections could hardly be voiced with more confidence than they are here.

Korzhev is just as clear and communicative in this concerto as he is in the easeful Op. 18 – listen to how well he articulates the central Quasi cadenza - and the ESO play with thrilling focus and trenchancy throughout. As before the recording is immediate without being overbearing, and that makes for a more congenial encounter with music that could so easily seem relentless and/or opaque. In short, everything here conspires to provide an ideal introduction to this splendid piece.

Krenek wrote his Third Piano Concerto for Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony, who premiered it in November 1946. I’ve listened to a rip of Mitropoulos conducting the NYPO from the keyboard; even allowing for the atrocious sound the performance seems a little chaotic at times. Predictably Korzhev, Woods and the ESO are far more controlled and consistent; for a start they actually make sense of the work, which is rather more than Mitropoulos and his forces could manage.

The concerto’s five movements – the longest of which lasts 3:49, the shortest 1:41 – gets off to a very energetic start that reminds me of Prokofiev at his glittering and propulsive best. The ensuing Andante sostenuto may be a wispier thing, but everyone remains utterly focused on the task at hand. Krenek is full of surprises, though; for instance there are moments in the Adagio that could be the accompaniment to an Expressionist silent by Murnau, Lang or Pabst. The prominent harp part is also an unexpected touch; as for the finale it’s both bluff and brilliant. Something of a cliff-hanger, it leaves me impatient to hear more. As a bonus Korzhev and Woods provide additional notes/perspectives on the pieces played. Now if only all booklets were this good ...

First it was Gál, but now Kenneth Woods brings his proselytizing zeal to Krenek; pianist Mikhail Korzhev seems just as passionate about these pieces.

Dan Morgan

Other Krenek discs from Toccata Classics: Piano Music ; Chamber Music


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