Sunday 3 April 2016

I cannot imagine finer performances of Ernst Krenek’s piano concertos than these from Mikhail Korzhev with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods on a new release from Toccata Classics

Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) was born in Vienna where he studied before moving to Berlin to study with Franz Schreker (1878-1934). Despite Schreker’s early influence on his music, a trip to Paris brought further influences including neo-classicism and jazz leading to his successful opera ‘Jonny spielt auf (1926). More jazz inspired operas followed before Krenek looked to 12 tone music for his ideas.

In 1938 Krenek moved to the USA where he taught and continued to compose. A prolific composer, his compositions include operas, ballets, choral music, orchestral music including five symphonies and four piano concertos, vocal music, chamber music including eight string quartets and piano music.

Toccata Classics has just released Volume 1 of Ernst Krenek: Complete Piano Concertos with pianist Mikhail Korzhev and the English Symphony Orchestra  conductor Kenneth Woods

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Krenek’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp major, Op.18 (1923) was successfully premiered by Eduard Erdmann who encouraged the composer to use a tonal style in this work. Pianist Mikhail Korzhev opens the Moderato with a gentle, leisurely theme that is soon developed with more intensity. The orchestra quietly join to take the theme forward, Krenek finding some lovely harmonies. The piano returns with the orchestra as the music continues to ruminate quietly on the theme before finding a moment of greater energy. However, the music soon returns to its gentle path with Kenneth Woods drawing many fine instrumental details from the English Symphony Orchestra. There is another brief moment of energy before the music falls back and one final increase in strength before the gentle coda that leads straight into the second movement.

The piano alone brings the lively, dancing Allegro agitato before the orchestra soon join in this energetic music. Mikhail Korzhev provides some buoyant, finely sprung playing moving through quieter passages where the music broadens then hurtles forward in some terrific passages, soloist and orchestra delivering some wonderful playing. Part way there is a spikier little variant as the music falls to a hush with some lovely moments. It soon picks up the tempo again to move through passages lit by brass and then sweeping ahead before the soloist drives the music forward to a resolute coda to lead into the next movement.

In the Adagio the piano trickles a little theme, soon joined by the orchestra as they bring a rather withdrawn quality. The piano slowly develops the theme around which the orchestra bring an atmospheric accompaniment until leading straight into the Allegro moderato (Tempo di Menuetto), a rhythmically sprung theme for piano which the orchestra takes up. Krenek brings some distinctive instrumental ideas as the rhythmic theme is shared around.  Korzhev captures the playful, yet slightly elusive quality of this music to perfection with Kenneth Woods and the ESO providing some absolutely terrific accompaniment.  Later there is a cadenza where Korzhev builds some fine passages, as well as a most lovely thoughtful passage before rising for the orchestra to join and push ahead with a joyful feel. Soloist and orchestra keep a fine forward momentum. There is an exquisitely played gentler moment before the piano brings some firm broad phrases that lead to a surprisingly quiet and gentle coda.

This is a quite lovely work in all respects, freely tonal with many lovely ideas.

The Piano Concerto No. 2, Op.81 (1937) was written for the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for its fiftieth anniversary celebrations and performed by the composer under no less a conductor than Bruno Walter. Though by now he had adopted the 12 tone technique of composition, Krenek‘s use of dodecaphony is not pedantic, allowing him to develop passages of much beauty.

The opening Andante dolcissimo, celeste brings high strings to which the piano joins in a slow tempo. A clarinet adds to the texture as do a number of various instruments as the theme expands and broadens. Krenek varies the rhythms as the piano plays over a longer orchestral line, rising to a climax before piano and strings bring a quieter passage, quite lovely and beautifully done before rising to go into the second movement.

The energetic Allegro assai, con ferocita is pointed up by timpani with the piano joining in a fast moving piano part with woodwind and brass adding colour. Soon the music falls to a more leisurely pace before slowly finding its earlier tempo. Krenek weaves a remarkably fine orchestral texture around the soloist with moments of sudden drama contrasting with quieter passages where the piano develops the material. The timpani return as the music rises dramatically to the coda and moves into the Quasi cadenza, a solo passage where the piano continues to work and develop the material through some fine fluent passages. Korzhev brings a tremendous continuity in this fast changing music, through strident chords as the music moves into the next movement.

A flute gently leads the orchestra ahead in the Canon in der Umkehrung: Adagio, con intimo sentiment, the orchestra weaving some fine ideas before the piano enters. The soloist slowly works his way ahead with some lovely instrumental moments before the strings surge ahead to a faster passage to which the piano joins. Soon there is a slower more thoughtful section before the music almost draws to a halt. The orchestra slowly shifts forward with a variety of instrumental ideas to which the piano joins with brass bringing their own brighter colour before moving straight into the final movement.

The Allegretto vivace, molto grazioso e leggiero brings a livelier, rather staccato piano theme where the soloist has a dialogue with various instruments. Here the soloist and orchestra show a remarkably fine ensemble. The music rises to a little peak before continuing its fast moving forward push. It rises to a number of little climaxes before finding a quieter lead up to the hushed coda. 

This is another remarkably fine concerto.

By the time Krenek wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3, Op.107 (1946) he was professor and head of the Department of Music at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Mitropoulos who became a great supporter of the composer and for whom the concerto was written.

The piano brings a strident, forceful opening to the Allegro, con passione immediately joined by the orchestra with brass dominating and timpani providing a dramatic rhythm as the music drives ahead. Soon there is a quieter, equally rhythmic passage with Krenek weaving a colourful orchestral score before running into a hushed Andante sostenuto to which high strings bring a gentle motif. The piano joins to pick out the theme and as it slowly takes shape a fine melody emerges. Here the composer still uses elements of a dodecaphonic style. He slowly builds in strength as both soloist and orchestra push forward into the next movement.

The Poco più mosso brings a staccato motif headed by a flute as it leads forward, soon joined by the soloist. The music quickly moves ahead in this skittish, playful theme, full of fast moving energy with some brilliant playing from the soloist as well as the individual instruments of the ESO. There is a lovely little coda as the music leads into the Adagio with a clash of cymbals to which the piano responds with a motif picked up by the harp. The piano and harp lead forward in a most unusual and inventive passage with percussion adding colour and texture. They move through a faster more dynamic moment before the harp brings a lovely harp passage but it is the piano that leads into the concluding light and joyful Vivace where the orchestra pushes ahead soon joined by the soloist, gaining a terrific rhythm with some very fine orchestration before arriving at the energetic coda.

This is an impressive concerto that is full of colour and energy and many distinctive ideas. 

I cannot imagine finer performances of these works and with an excellent recording made at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales and excellent booklet notes from Peter Tregear, Kenneth Woods and Mikhael Korzhev this is a disc that should win new friends for Krenek’s music. 

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