A little over a month ago, the British Toccata Classics label released a single CD under the title Ernst Krenek Piano Music, Volume One. According to the description on the back of the jewel case, this is the “first extended survey of the piano music of Ernst Krenek.” It is unclear how broad this survey will be. The list of his compositions compiled by Grove Music Online lists seven sonatas composed between 1919 (Opus 2 in E-flat major) to 1988 (Opus 240). Depending on how one wishes to count, there are roughly twenty additional piano pieces in the catalog. (Krenek was born in 1900 and died in 1992.)
I should begin my own account of this new recording with a personal disclaimer. While I had been familiar with Krenek’s name since my student days, I only became really aware of him because, while I was living in Santa Barbara, both my piano teacher and her husband were enthusiastic champions of his work. They also had a personal friendship with him, which suggests that the recordings they made of both his piano music and his songs (my piano teacher’s husband was a baritone) carried a stamp of authority from the composer’s own hand.
Nevertheless, beyond the enthusiastic picture they painted of Krenek, it is important to recognize that he was also a very serious scholar. Thus, as a “second generation” student of the efforts of Arnold Schoenberg and his “first generation” students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, Krenek was as interested in developing his own perspectives on both the theories and practices behind Schoenberg’s music. However, at the same time one could say that he was taking a similar approach to the music of Kurt Weill that resulted in his 1925 (“jazzy”) opera Jonny spielt auf. This potentially raises an intriguing question of Krenek’s priorities: Was he a composer who believed in working from a strong scholarly foundation, was he a scholar with ambitions of being a composer, or was he ultimately a balanced combination of the two?
To some extent this new Toccata Classics release seems to bear this question in mind? Whether that perspective has been taken by pianist Stanisalv Khristenko (who may or may not participate in any further volumes in this series), Peter Treagar, author of the booklet essay, or some uncredited third party is open to question. However, the choice of pieces for this first volume definitely reflects a point of view about Krenek himself.
Most important is that three of the four pieces recorded were all composed between 1944 and 1950, meaning that they were written after Krenek had settled in the United States after having successfully fled the Nazis. The fourth piece is very much an academic exercise, a completion of Franz Schubert’s D. 840 (“Reliquie”) piano sonata in C major. Only the first two movements (Moderato and Andante) were completed in their entirety, as was the trio for the following Menuetto. However, there is only a fragment of the Menuetto itself and only 272 bars of the Rondo finale.
My personal opinion is that this completion exercise tells us more about Krenek-the-scholar than it does about Krenek-the-composer. The use of Rondo form in the late Schubert sonatas is a frequent one, and Krenek’s completion of the D. 840 movement suggests that he had internalized an overall architecture consistent with Schubert’s completed efforts. However, Krenek also seems to have take a certainly ludic delight in packing references to both tropes and themes that Schubert had already written in the other movements, which may not have reflected Schubert’s own sense of what should go into a finale. More likely Krenek expected that serious Schubert-lovers would nod and smile at the game he chose to play, and that is certainly the reaction this music drew from my own approach to listening.
Among the three original compositions, the Opus 120 “George Washington Variations” has a similarly playful aesthetic. This uses the basic framework of variation to explore a broader scope of music from the time when our country was still a colony. Krenek composed this in 1950 after he had moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped that he could support himself as a composer. It was written on a commission by Los Angeles business man Morris Molin, who intended it as a gift for his daughter. This was a time when knowledge of the history of American music was relatively spare, so the composition had a significant novelty factor. However, Krenek never achieved his goal of making a living as a composer; and he spent the summer of that year teaching at Darmstadt while watching the rising fortunes of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The only sonata on this recording is the fourth, Opus 114 composed in 1948. The text on the jewel case describes it as synthesizing “the graceful elegance of the First Viennese School in the style of the Second.” It might be fairer to say that Krenek was trying his own hand and Schoenberg’s exercise for his Opus 29 suite in 1925, which amounted to drawing upon dance forms from the Baroque period without structuring them according the basic tonal tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic progression. Indeed, in Opus 114 Krenek demonstrates his mastery of the same kinds of melodic contours that can be found in atonal Schoenberg; but the result almost amounts to ear training for those still trying to get a handle on how to listen to Schoenberg.
Finally, there is the world premiere recording of a piece that is not yet included in the Grove list of Krenek’s compositions, the WoO 87 prelude composed in 1944. This was composed for the wealthy Swiss businessman Werner Reinhart at a time when Krenek was feeling the pangs of exile, even though he had been in the United States since 1938. This is another piece that seems to reflect on Schoenberg’s Opus 29 and its approach to realizing structures of the past through an atonal syntax. It also serves as an “overture” for the Opus 114 sonata and might have helped listener appreciation had it appeared on the recording before Opus 114, rather than following the unabashedly tonal Opus 120.
Nevertheless, this is a recording that allows the listener to approach Krenek from a variety of different points of view, so to speak; and, in that respect, it provides an excellent introduction to what he achieved as a composer.