Saturday 2 March 2013

The Johannes-Kreisler Trio perform chamber works by Ernst Krenek on a fine new release from Audite

Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) was born in Vienna, the son of a Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. After studying in Vienna and later in Berlin with Franz Schreker (1878-1934) he worked in a number of German opera houses as conductor. Krenek was conscripted into the Austrian army during World War I but, as he was stationed in Vienna, he was able to continue his musical studies. In 1922 he met Alma Mahler, wife of the late Gustav Mahler, and her daughter, Anna, whom he married in 1924. Around this time Krenek was completing his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 29 which was premiered in Dessau in January 1925 by its dedicatee, the Australian violinist Alma Moodie.

Krenek divorced less than a year after his marriage, having had an affair with Moodie. He never managed to hear her play the concerto, but is said to have incorporated some of her personality into the character of Anita in his opera Jonny spielt auf, completed in 1926. This opera was an enormous success and made Krenek a well-known figure. Krenek became unhappy with the tremendous success of the opera and shortly afterwards radically changed his compositional direction.

Although not Jewish, Krenek came under increasing pressure from the Nazis during the 1930s. His incidental music to Goethe's Triumph der Empfindsamkeit was withdrawn in Mannheim and eventually the Vienna State Opera were forced to cancel the premiere of his opera Karl V. In 1938 Krenek moved to the United States, where he taught music at Vassar College and later, from 1942 to 1947 at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota where he met and married his third wife, his student, the composer Gladys Nordenstrom (b.1924). Although he became an American citizen in 1945, he later moved to Toronto, Canada, where, during the 1950s, he taught at The Royal Conservatory of Music. Krenek’s students included Milton Barnes 1931-2001), Lorne Betts (1918-1985), Samuel Dolin (1917-2002), Robert Erickson (1917-1997), Halim El-Dabh (b.1921), Richard Maxfield (1927-1969), Will Ogdon (b.1921), and George Perle (1915-2009).

Krenek died in Palm Springs, California. In 1998, Gladys Nordenstrom founded the Ernst Krenek Institute now located in Krems, Austria.

By the time of his death at the age of 91 years, Krenek had written a huge amount of music including operas, ballets, vocal music, orchestral music (including five symphonies), concertos, music for wind band, chamber works (including eight string quartets), seven piano sonatas and electronic music.

Krenek has been criticised for constantly changing his style of composition but has also been described as a one-man history of twentieth-century music. Given that Krenek lived through almost all of the 20th century and composed over a period of more than seven decades of that century, it is hardly surprising that he shifted his style. Although not one of Schönberg’s Viennese students, by the early 1920s, Krenek was seen as a representative of new music, but it was not until 1930 that he first approached dodecaphony partly out of compositional necessity, but also out of an aesthetic understanding.

In the early 1940s he had already begun to experiment with sequence rotation in his compositions such as the Third Piano Sonata. In doing so, he sought to create a bridge to modal music. In the 1950s, Krenek’s contacts with the younger European avant-garde encouraged him to begin composing electronic music.

A new release from Audite brings chamber works from the 1920s and 1940s in performances by the Johannes-Kreisler Trio with Christoph Schickedanz (violin), Mathias Beyer-Karlshoj (cello) and Holger Spegg (piano).

The Sonata for solo Violin No.1 Op.33 (1925) was written only a year before his famous opera Jonny spielt auf. Written in four movements, the largo immediately shows astringent, dissonant harmonies yet never seems directionless; always there is the feel of a structure. Christoph Schickedanz (violin) brings out the edginess as well as the subtler, softer harmonies in this ever changing movement. Occasionally an almost romantic sound emerges.  As if the largo hadn’t presented challenges enough for the violinist, the following vivace furioso (marked mit Veremenz) takes the soloist even more into playing of extreme virtuosity and, indeed, some vehemence. Throughout Schickedanz is in full command in a performance of tremendous virtuosity, breadth and sensitivity.

It is difficult not to be drawn in by the wonderful adagio (möglichst ruhevoll- as calmly as possible). Yes it is dissonant, but strangely attractive, even beautiful at times. Schickedanz is superb in how he controls every detail. As the movement progresses the music becomes more agitated but falls back to a quieter mood again, even though it still can’t seem to contain itself and continues to break out in angst until, at the very end, it fades away. With the allegro, poco vivace (Piece joyeuse), Krenek ends, surprisingly, with a movement full of fun and, indeed, joy. No less of a challenge for the violinist, the music runs around playfully, creating the feeling of a work being improvised as the player moves ahead. This is a terrific movement with an ending full of panache.

This relatively early work receives a wonderful performance from Christoph Schickedanz. There is no feeling of being constrained by the atonal nature of the work – quite the opposite.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.99 (1945) takes us on twenty years from the first solo violin sonata.  There is a skittish andante con moto – animato before a slightly more flowing melodic line is introduced. Occasionally ghostly harmonics in the violin part hover above the piano, breaking up the brighter animato theme before quietening towards the end. A sad adagio follows, wistful and sparsely written, the piano picking out the melody. Eventually the music becomes more passionate until, with pizzicato notes on the violin against the piano lead to a hushed, resigned end.  One can only imagine what thoughts were in the exiled composer’s mind in this affecting movement. With the allegro assai, vivace the violin and piano dance around each other playfully in short phrases. Occasionally a longer melody intrudes but the short phrases return to bring the movement to a lively end.

The Triophantasie Op.63 (1929) is written in a single span, opening with a lovely andante sostenuto full of melodic invention, quite different to the First Solo Violin Sonata of only four years earlier. As the work progresses, with rich piano chords, this work looks backwards to the 19th century rather than forwards to the 20th. The allegro, ma non troppo has gently shifting harmonies that show that this is still very much Krenek, simply more melodic. A lovely passionate passage arrives before a short phrased section, even more redolent of the Krenek we expect. A climax is reached (allegro agitato) where chords tumble over each other before calming. A fragmented piano theme leads to a lovely piano melody which sounds improvised, before the violin joins followed by the cello (poco piu mosso, scherzando) where Krenek’s Viennese roots show in a passage of flowing Viennese sounds. Then the music quietens to a hushed, beautifully conceived, final section shifting between all three instruments. This is a wonderful work, even if Krenek apparently disliked it himself. It hovers between 20th century experimentalism and 19th century conservatism. All three soloists play brilliantly in this superb performance.

With the last work on this disc, the Sonata for Solo Violin No.2 Op. 115, we return to a form of music first written in 1925, but, whereas the earlier solo sonata lasted some thirty four minutes, this new sonata is a mere nine minutes in duration. The allegro deciso is something of a showpiece for the violin, combining 20th century dissonance with the feel of a 19th century virtuosic showpiece. In the allegro, rich chords alternate with more demanding passages in a rather elusive movement before the allegretto grazioso – molto vivace – Presto opens with a sprung rhythm before a faster section full of display for the violin.

Whilst the first sonata is complex and takes time to fully appreciate, all the works on this fine CD have much to offer especially in such wonderful, well recorded performances as these.

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