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Ernst KRENEK (1900-91)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op.18 (1923) [30.24] first recording
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op.81 (1937) [24.51] first recording
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op.107 (1946) [12.58]
Mikhail Korzhev (piano)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 12-13 September 2015

This valuable release advertises itself as the first volume in a series devoted to the “complete piano concertos” of Krenek, and a further release will presumably contain the Fourth Concerto as well as the concerto for piano, violin and chamber orchestra. The first two concertos, we are told, are here receiving their first commercial recordings although a two-piano reduction of the First – with the same pianist as here – is to be found on YouTube. Obviously the presence of an orchestra on the new disc renders the earlier version obsolete; and there doesn’t appear to be a currently listed alternative of the Third Concerto either, the only previous recording I can trace (made in 1948 and most recently issued as part of a compendious 10 CD box devoted to the recordings of Dimitri Mitropoulos) having presumably long succumbed to the deletions axe. John France in an earlier review for this site described the sound on the Mitropoulos recording as “atrocious” and suggested that the accuracy of the performance was also dubious, which hardly makes one anxious to hear it.

Krenek is probably best-known today (if indeed he is remembered at all) at the composer of Jonny spielt auf, the subject of both musical and political controversy at the time of its first performances as the “first jazz opera”. But in fact, as the Decca recording of the complete score some twenty years ago made plain, the jazz elements are not even the most substantial element in the work, and the other music of Krenek is far removed from more jazz-influenced composers such as Gershwin or (in the European field) Kurt Weill. Later in his career Krenek was far more heavily committed to the German mainstream tradition, eventually finding himself in the camp of composers such as Schoenberg; this of course meant that his music continued to be regarded as ‘beyond the pale’ by his Nazi contemporaries, but did little at same time to endear his music to those who hankered after the jazz elements for which he was primarily notorious.

His piano concertos indeed reveal only very peripheral jazz influences, mainly to be found in the First Concerto. This, as the existence of an acknowledged key signature testifies, is a tonal work although highly chromatic in approach; the Second espouses twelve-tone techniques; and the Third, written after Krenek had fled into American exile following Hitler’s annexation of Austria, is similarly atonal in style although more outgoing in manner. But, as the conductor Kenneth Woods points out in a useful booklet note, all three are cyclical in form and display a sense of humour including a section in the Third Concerto where the pianist abandons the keyboard for an exploration of the inside workings of the instrument. The booklet notes also extend to a brief personal note from the soloist, and a perceptive essay about the evolution of Krenek’s style by Peter Tregear, who has written a whole book about the composer. These notes are unfortunately in English only; German-speaking aficionados of Krenek might have welcomed a translation.

Having described the First Concerto as a tonal work, it is nevertheless a piece of uncompromising modernity in style; this is quite definitely music of the twentieth century rather than any neo-romantic pastiche. But it has an engaging and attractive profile, rather like Prokofiev, and the bouncing rhythms of the final Menuetto have an appeal which will enchant any listener. I love the way in which the unwinding repeated chords at the end of the second movement lead into the slow movement (the concerto unfolds in an uninterrupted span, as indeed do the two later ones on this disc). The Second Concerto sounds very like Berg’s Violin Concerto in its reconciliation of twelve-tone techniques with an awareness of harmonic relativities, and although it is altogether a knottier proposition than the First it is still recognisably a product of the same composer as the earlier concerto. There are places where the strings sound stretched, as at the beginning of the section marked Allegro assai con ferocita (track 6), but their accuracy and unanimity of pitch is commendable if not ideally full-bodied; and the wind players certainly give the music plenty of bite and attack.

The Third Concerto is well bound together, despite the shortness of its individual ‘movements’, and Mikhail Korshev is a tower of both strength and sensitivity here, as throughout the disc. Although the music remains twelve-tone is style, there is a rhythmic propulsion behind it which charges the score and lends it an immediate attractiveness which makes a pleasing change from much of the more ‘earnest’ dodecaphonic music that other composers were producing at the time. And here, again as throughout this disc, the resonant acoustic of the recording venue helps to give the music a real presence even in the most thinly scored of passages. Although all three concertos are continuous in performance, the CD sensibly tracks the individual sections separately which quite apart from anything else helps the listener to keep au fait with the manner in which the music is progressing.

Given the rarity of any opportunity to hear Krenek’s music today, it is doubly welcome that both performances and recordings are of the first class. The producer of the disc is Michael Haas, who supervised Decca’s Entartete Musik series which served to introduce so many unknown works from this period to modern audiences; it is marvellous to know that his exploration of this repertoire is continuing to produce such splendid results.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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