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Eduard KÜNNEKE (1885-1953)
Piano Concerto, op 36 (1935) [32:13]
Zigeunerweisen (1907) [9:31]
Serenade (1907) [22:35]
Oliver Triendl (piano)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ernst Theis
rec. 2015, Studio 1, Bavarian Radio
CPO 555 015-2 [64:25]

Until recently I tended to stereotype composers such as Lehár, Fall, Kálmán and Eduard Künneke, who features on this offering from CPO as ‘operettists’, writers of unashamedly lighter theatre music of the sort that frankly is not really my ‘thing’. A chance late-night ‘innocent-ear’ type exposure to Fieber, a tone poem with voice by Lehár forced me to think again. This extraordinary work, describing the tortured demise of a soldier in the Great War borders on the expressionistic – I was impressed and astonished in equal measure by the fact that this emerged from the hand that produced The Merry Widow. My curiosity piqued, I ordered the CPO disc immediately and while there was nothing else on there to compete with Fieber that work alone justified the outlay.

Another CPO issue - ‘Suites and Overtures for the Radio, Volume 2’ sets another work by Künneke - his Tänzerische Suite - Concerto Grosso für Jazzband und grosses Orchester from 1929 in the context of other works of smoky, jazz-infused Weimariana (by Toch, Schreker, Spoliansky, Braunfels and Max Butting). It’s a brilliant piece which again confounded my unfair prejudices. This superb 2CD set is on CPO 777838-2 and Nick Barnard’s eloquent MusicWeb review can be read here.

The Piano Concerto featured here dates from two years after Hitler’s accession to ultimate power. The jazz allusions here are thus inevitably more subtle, but add attractive colour to a work which has pretty big bones and is structured in the grand, late-romantic style. Its first movement is roughly the same length as the other two combined and begins with a motif which sounded oddly like Vaughan Williams to these ears. It’s a figure that returns throughout the work but by then any lingering images of pastoral England have been wholly forgotten. There are some resilient melodies and the whole seems to be situated in a hinterland somewhere between Ravel, Gershwin and Rachmaninov. CPO stalwart Oliver Triendl is more than equal to its challenges and, as usual, he plays this completely unfamiliar work as though it is a repertoire staple. His confidence increases this listener’s conviction that this is indeed a ‘find’, and is matched by suave work from the Munich orchestra under Ernst Theis, although I do find the recording a little dry in places.

The highlight of this work is the truly beautiful slow movement which contains a real earworm. If this had been composed by any of the composers mentioned above you can be sure it would have become a real ‘hit’ and certainly featured on those ‘Adagio’ type compilations that emerge from time to time. And I suppose that’s the point of a review like this – I’m sure many others would be utterly beguiled by this movement if they got the opportunity to hear it. It certainly fits in the context of the whole piece and Triendl definitely doesn’t milk it – as must be tempting when encountering it anew. This is tactful playing of the first order – he lets the music speak for itself. The third movement is nicely proportioned and consistent with what’s gone before; it ties up the loose ends efficiently but doesn’t really hit the heights of its predecessors. I find this is often true of lesser-known concerto fare, almost as though there are parameters to the composer’s inspiration which can’t quite stretch to a truly satisfying conclusion in more extended, ambitious works.

Having said that, there’s certainly enough here to make me curious to hear Künneke’s other (single movement) essay in the form although there is also what sounds like an oddity in the form of a concertante piece which apparently grafts an orchestration onto Schubert’s D major sonata! Hopefully CPO will get onto recording these mysteries in due course.

The couplings are works from Künneke’s apprenticeship, both dating from 1907. The Zigeunerweisen (Gipsy Airs) pay gentle homage to Hungarian folk forms. The Serenade is a more extended five movement Viennese style work which does basically does largely what you would expect such a work to do. To my ears, alas, both these pieces are mere fillers. I absorbed both with neither pleasure nor regret. The Piano Concerto is the raison d’ętre of this disc.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Rob Barnett 



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