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Krenek Symphonies

This article was originally published at The Classical Review on October 7, 2012.

available at Amazon
E. Krenek, Complete Symphonies, NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, T. Ukigaya, A. Francis

(released on May 29, 2012)
cpo 777 695-2 | 229'39"
It took a while, but the last installment in the cycle of Ernst Krenek’s symphonies, recorded by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, has finally appeared. For those who had acquired the earlier three discs, under conductor Takao Ukigaya, the fourth came out last year, almost two decades later, under new conductor Alun Francis. Listeners who are new to these recordings can buy the box set from CPO, which brings all four CDs together.

Born in Vienna in 1900, Krenek is best known for his jazz-infused opera Jonny spielt auf, if anything, while the CPO set remains the only available recording of most of his symphonies. There have been some earlier recordings of the first and second, both composed in 1921 and 1922, shortly after Krenek had completed his studies under Franz Schreker and just before a short-lived marriage to Gustav Mahler’s daughter Anna (he was the second of her five husbands, and she the first of his three wives). Krenek, a prolific polystylist, produced an extensive body of music that was a compendium of 20th-century composition, embracing at various times neo-romanticism, atonality, neoclassicism, jazz, serialism, imitation of medieval counterpoint (the complex contrapuntal music of Johannes Ockeghem was a particular fascination for him — Stravinsky and Webern, among others, had similar interests in early music), electronics, and aleatory techniques. Not much of it made its way into the five symphonies recorded here, which hover somewhere between late Romantic harmony and vociferous atonality.

In Ernst Krenek: The Man and His Music, scholar John L. Stewart published excerpts from many interviews he conducted with Krenek during the composer’s years in the United States. Krenek produced the first three symphonies in a burst of youthful activity, about which he said: “I am unable to figure out how it was possible even mechanically to write down so many notes in so short a time, not to mention the creative effort that had to go with it or before it.” They are bombastic pieces, seemingly full of the excess of youth and admiration for the rhythmic savagery of Bartók, especially the first, with all of its spiky, hammered qualities played to the hilt by conductor Takao Ukigaya. Krenek wrote of the experience of learning on his feet about orchestration in the 1920s, how to write for the different instruments and combine them, showing progress in the second symphony — at nearly an hour in length, by far the most substantial work Krenek ever completed for orchestra — but both of these pieces often sound like a young man taking a fast car for a joyride. In the same year, 1922, Krenek took a detour through a smaller-scale symphony (for nine solo instruments, op. 11, not included in the set), too, and the lessons learned seem to have played out in the third symphony, which Stewart rightly called “more ingratiating than challenging.”

The change in direction occupied more of Krenek’s time in the next several years, as he avoided full-scale symphonies for smaller works: two concerti grossi (no. 2, from 1924, is included in this set), a symphony for winds and percussion (op. 34, 1924-25), a Kleine Symphonie (op. 58, 1928), and a fluffy, neoclassical Potpourri for Orchestra in 1927, with only the last one making an appearance in this actually incomplete set. Krenek’s world was turned upside down in the 1930s, when the Nazis pilloried his atonal music as “degenerate art” (especially the black hero of Jonny spielt auf), pressuring the Vienna State Opera to take back its commission of his opera Karl V. In 1938, Krenek emigrated to the United States, teaching at a number of American universities and becoming a naturalized citizen in 1945. It is by this chance of history that Krenek wrote his memoirs in English, although they were never published, except in a hard-to-find German translation. The composer’s typescript remains, largely forgotten and unread, in the collection of the Library in Congress in Washington, D.C.

Up to this point in the set, none of the works really stands out as all that compelling — worth discovering, yes, but not the sort of piece one hears and wonders where it has been all one’s life. Upon arriving in the United States, Krenek went through the heartbreak of discovering that he was a virtual unknown in his new country, and times were often lean. Fortunately, Krenek found a champion in the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, then at the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (known today as the Minnesota Orchestra, which has tragically announced plans to cut player salaries by up to 50%), who encouraged Krenek to take up the symphonic genre again in the 1940s, urging him to go in a different direction. In response, Krenek renounced serialism in his fourth and fifth symphonies, premiered in 1947 and 1949 by Mitropoulos. (A final symphony in 1954, nicknamed “Pallas Athene” because it is a symphonic distillation of his later opera Pallas Athene weint, is not included in the CPO set; neither is the Symphonic Elegy for Strings, a serial work dedicated to Anton Webern in 1946.)

All of Krenek’s symphonies are spined with dissonance, but in many ways his forays into atonality, inspired certainly by the trends in European music in the 1920s and 30s, also are refracted through the lens of the composer’s study of Renaissance and Baroque music. The fifth symphony’s final movement, for example, is a compact fugue that sort of limps to a quiet end, punctuated by thwacks of percussion. In Horizons Circled: Reflections on My Music, Krenek wrote that his “main interest was devoted to the form of the symphony, and in this I can see a certain symptom of being conscious of historical continuity.” While seeking, as he remembered writing in his diary, “to become the successor of Mahler in the field of the symphony,” he brought together both atonal and traditional elements, incorporating in a rigorous way his study of counterpoint and historical forms. “Such encapsulated remnants of another age evoke frequently a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy,” he concluded. “The procedure as such is related to the principles of surrealism, of which at that time I had not the slightest idea.” Sadly for Krenek, in spite of Mitropoulos’s help, he did not become part of the symphonic mainstream, something that this set of recordings could help to remedy.

Will Robin, Sounds Heard: Ernst Krenek—Complete Symphonies (NewMusicBox, September 4)

John L. Stewart, Ernst Krenek: The Man and His Music (1991)

Ernst Krenek, Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music, with contributions by Will Ogdon and John L. Stewart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974)

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