ERNST KRENEK: Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka, Op. 169; Five Prayers, Op. 97; Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdischen, Op. 72; Lamento della Ninfa (MONTEVERDI, arr. by KRENEK); Drei gemischete A-Capella-Chöre, Op. 22; Two Choruses on Jacobean Poems, Op. 87 – Caroline Stein, soprano Philip Moyers, piano / RIAS Kammerchor /Hans Christoph Rademann – Harmonia mundi HMC 902049, 74:09 ****1/2:
Exile must always be a hard reality, but for some it seems worse than for others. Schoenberg and Stravinsky took a shine to sunshiny California, and Hindemith appeared to revel in the halls of academe, at Yale. But then we know about the hardships Bartók endured in New York, redeemed somewhat by the commissioning of his final masterpiece, The Concerto for Orchestra. Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, too, must have felt like a stranger in a strange land in America. He had long been a marked man, the composer of the jazz-inspired opera of the 1920s, Jonny spielt auf, which the Nazis branded as “Jewish-Negro filth,” and an adherent to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which the Nazis lumped with the music they called entartete, “degenerate.”
The Anschluss made Krenek a political outcast and refugee. Like Hindemith, he held teaching positions, and like Schoenberg, he finally ended up in California, but he never seems to have quite gotten over the depression caused by the collapse of his beloved native country or the relative lack of respect his music earned in America. He came to refer to himself as “the late Ernst Krenek.”
This depression and alienation must inform some of the music on the disc under review. But much of the music predates Krenek’s years of exile and shows him to be a man of deep and skeptical thinking throughout his life. True, the program was chosen to reflect Krenek’s exploration of the theme of worldy transience, but even the text of Krenek’s choral masterpiece, The Lamentations of Jeremiah, speaks to this sense of dark brooding.
Yet in some of this music there is lightness and charm as well and always a sense of God’s mercy, even in the caustic Sechs Motetten. The charm is most evident in Krenek’s lovely arrangement of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, which celebrates Krenek’s lifelong admiration of early music. The lightness is most evident in Die Römer, the last of Drei gemischete A-Capella-Chöre based on poetry of Matthias Claudius (author of the poem that Schubert made famous, “Death and the Maiden”). Die Römer blames the decline of the Romans on their appetites and in comically reductionist fashion ends up condemning roast ox and wine for their downfall. Krenek uses a clumsy waltz rhythm and a burlesque-hall final cadence to capture Claudius’ wry humor. It’s all pretty funny, though the other two choruses are sober meditations on death and loss.
Sechs Motetten (commissioned by the RIAS Chamber Choir) may be the most accomplished work on offer, as well as the most advanced. It captures the chilly, fragmentary world of Kafka’s prose through equally chilly dissonances, wide vocal leaps, sprechstimme, sound effects (the repeated –ch sounds on the words peitscht sich, “whips itself”: “The beast wrests the whip from the master and whips itself so as to become a master. . . .”), and even monotonous repetitions (for instance, the word Mußigäng, “idleness”: “Idleness is the beginning of all vice. . . .”).
However, for me, the strongest work here is Krenek’s setting of 17th-century English poets, William Drummond, Walter Raleigh (Two Choruses on Jacobean Poems), and John Donne (Five Prayers). It’s remarkable to note that audiences and critics of the 1940s reacted negatively to Five Prayers, thinking of it as mathematical and mechanistic in conception. Actually, it’s a clever tribute to the medieval and renaissance choral traditions that Krenek loved. He starts off with a cantus firmus on “The Lord’s Prayer”; this cantus firmus also happens to be a Schoenbergian tone row, and it returns throughout the composition in serial fashion, both unifying the work and acting as a sort of spiritual anchor that grounds the pained meditations from Donne’s poem “A Litanie.”
The work seems a decided advance on the Cantata on the Transience of Earthly Things (1932), where the austerity of twelve-tone technique clashes with moments of bland tonality and a somewhat too-pretty soprano solo. (I haven’t been able to compare this performance with others; it could be that Caroline Stein’s soprano is prettier and more unruffled than it needs to be.) But then Krenek thought of this as his finest work. You may be more appreciative of it than I am.
Be that as it may, the performances here are excellent, the RIAS Chamber Choir breathtaking in its control and complete mastery of Krenek’s difficult music. Except for my slight quibbles with the Cantata (which probably have more to do with Krenek’s conception than with the execution of the work), this disc is a notable achievement for the choir. Excellent sound, too, provided by the famous ambience of the Jesus-Christus-Kirke in Berlin. Full texts are provided; you’ll want to keep them at hand as you listen.