m a k i n g   t i m e

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with Don Mager

Ernst Krenek

Zwei Zeitlieder, Op.215 (1972). Drei Lieder, Op.216 (1972).
Opus 231 fuer Violine und Orgel (1979). Streichtrio in zwolf Stationen, Op.237 (1985).
Opus 239 fuer Horn und Orgel (1988). Klaviersonate Nr.7, Op.240 (1988).
Dyophonie, fuer zwei celli, Op.241 (1988).
The Southwest Chamber Music Society. Rediviva Musica.
Orfeo International Music C452971A, 1997.

This disk samples works composed during the last two decades of Krenek's life (1900-1991), in other words, during his seventies and eighties. Is it appropriate to leap to thoughts of Haydn and Verdi? We shall see.

Krenek's career is remarkable for the diversity of compositional practices that at various stages he explored and exploited: a Viennese post-Mahlarian romantic extravagance, a bad boy jazz influenced iconoclastic expressionism of the 1920s, his own Schubertean neoclassicism in the 1930s, Second Viennese atonality and serialism in the 1940s, and a post-serial eclecticism from the 1950s until his death in 1991. Early on he made big splashes on the European musical scene and quickly emerged as one of the defining voices of German modernism. His first three symphonies, the early string quartets and piano sonatas, and in particular a handful of operas, most famous of which was Jonny Spielt Auf, were sensationally successful.

Mid-career, his ultra-strict serialist phase produced works of introspective and shimmering austerity; one finds it astounding that the raucous bad boy pieces of his youth are by the same creative mind. Listeners who do not know Lamentation Jeremiae Prophetae (1942) are missing one of the supreme choral achievements of this century; with its loving attention to voice registers and a capella polyphony, it is a work whose peers are not of our time but rather the fourteenth century. (Note that Krenek researched the works of Ockeghem extensively and published an important book about him in 1953).

But what about this late harvest? Unlike some stages in Krenek's highly polemical and heavily theorized career, these late works are pleasantly accessible without dumbing down either the composer's vision nor the listener. Procedurally, after the mathematical serialism of the middle years, in these works, Krenek returns to an approach akin to his earlier expressionism. But the brash iconoclastic edges have been softened. Attention-grabbing gives way to more durable musical values. This neo-expressionism, if I can so dub it, becomes a fluid, through-composed and kinetically charged expressionism capable of kaleidoscopic and nuanced shifts, at one moment dramatic, at another winsome, or witty, or pleading, or assertive. The secret to this fluidity is, I believe, a masterful shaping of the phrase. Like the most fluent styles of recitative, say in the periods of Cavalli or of Mozart, a phrasing shaped around the inner rhythms and durations of human conversation is realized in a declamatory linear flow of individually autonomous phrases.

No wonder, then, that two sets of songs (one accompanied by string quartet and the other by piano) should introduce this collection of works. Krenek has written lieder at every stage of his stylistic odyssey, but unlike the sardonic urbane sophistication of some of the earlier songs, these late sets have an autumnal limpidness which is very attractive.

My point about phrasing and declamation, however, is perhaps most immediately heard in Klaviersonate Nr.7, the last of his piano sonatas.

Performances of Krenek's piano sonatas have a vexed and interesting history. During the 1950s, Glen Gould included at least two of them (numbers 3 and 4) regularly in his concerts and recorded number 3 (a recording still available after over 40 years2 ). His performance was denounced by Krenek as seriously at odds with directions regarding dynamics and tempi. Gould published an essay defending his performances. In Gould, Krenek had one of his most ardent champions and yet it was a championship which he rejected.

Conversely, in the late 1980s, The Australian pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge recorded for the first time the complete cycle of Krenek sonatas. Krenek worked with the pianist and stationed himself in the recording studio across the piano from Madge more or less conducting the performances. In gratitude, Krenek wrote the last of his sonatas for Madge to be premiered in the CD complete set. One would assume his performance of Klaviersonate Nr.7 would be as authoritative as one might expect to get.

To my ear, however, Vicki Ray, whom I know nothing about and have never heard before, does a far superior rendition of it on the CD under review here. In her hands, Klaviersonate Nr.7 opens with a wide arch of a phrase which leaps up the register and then sinks back. Despite clear caesurae, each new phrase is shaped by Ray as if it were related to the opening arch.

As a result this one movement piece of about twelve minutes has the feeling of a chaconne or passacaglia, even though exact material is not repeated. By this I mean, through the way she weights and shapes phrases, Ray makes the separate phrases link into a sequence which has a chaconne feeling. If musical phrases have their origin in breathing, Ray's concept of Klaviersonate Nr.7 is one which communicates a wonderfully breathed and breathable line of pianistic events. The through-composed linearity is thus made coherent, where in Madge's version we get chopped up fragments. His version is nearly two minutes shorter than Ray's, due I think (I have not studied the score) to a strictly mechanical adherence to metronome markings. That a piece might be isolated musical cells laid out temporally as separate episodes, as Madge conceives it, is neither musical nonsense nor performance incompetence. But for me comparing the two approaches leads to more trust in Ray's overall comprehension of the piece than does Madge's corpuscular episodes.

In the context of the other works on this CD written during the same final decades, I think Ray's way with this music conforms better to the overriding musical impulses of Krenek's final flowering. All of the works, with their surprising timbres and instrumentations, feature a line of lovingly shaped declamatory phrases, only fleetingly built into dense harmonic chunks and never approaching the polyphonic densities of his serial years. At the end of his career, Krenek seems to be set upon exploring line for its own sake.

I cannot end without a word about timbres. The two works without names, simply identified as Opus 231 fuer Violine und Orgel and Opus 239 fuer Horn und Orgel seem by that fact to insist that they be heard as not representatives of a genre (lied or sonata) but as music in some nameless form of pure expression. Dialogic and declamatory in approach, rarely weaving imitative counterparts or setting up a solo-accompanist opposition, the startling sound of violin and organ in the first case and horn and organ in the second confirms that even as an octogenarian, Krenek was wont to forge new sound worlds. Similarly, the Streichtrio in zwolf Stationen discovers previously unheard combinations of contrasted timbres between and among the conventional violin, viola, cello grouping. Like Verdi's and Haydn's last glorious achievements, these late works by Krenek are both a summation of his long career and simultaneously an unprecedented fresh opening.

I also feel music history breathing down my neck as I listen to these late pieces, some composed as recently as eight years ago, for Krenek's first wife was Mahler's daughter, and after Mahler's death, at his widow's request, young Krenek produced the performance edition for the earliest performances of the Adagio from Symphony No.10--the only movement Alma Mahler would allow to be published or performed during her lifetime.

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