Monday, May 1, 2017

Toccata Classics Completes its Krenek Piano Concertos Project

Last month Toccata Classics concluded its project to record the complete piano concertos of Ernst Krenek with the release of its second volume. As I observed when writing about the first volume for, Krenek was a prodigiously productive composer with an opus number count that ran generously over 200. Indeed, in the face of all that productivity, I observed at that time that “Krenek may have the questionable honor of being the most prolific composer in history whose name is unrecognized by just about everyone.” almost seemed to add insult to injury in view of the number of hoops I had to jump through to recover the URL for the Web page of that first volume in the above hyperlink. (In fairness, however, I have to confess that just about any search for a classical album on Amazon has been a dicey prospect for quite some time. From this I have concluded that either Amazon really does not care about search or really does not care about classical music listeners!)

In light of that opus number count, it is a bit surprising that this Toccata Classics project required only two CDs, which, in turn, served up only seven concertos. Furthermore, on that first volume of the first three concertos, the first two of them were receiving their first commercial recordings. The fact is that Krenek wrote only seven piano concertos; and only four of them (including the three on the first volume) were for solo piano. The remaining three were, in chronological order, Opus 88 for piano and organ (1940), Opus 124 for violin and piano (1950), and Opus 127 for two pianos (1951). On the second volume album only Opus 88 had been previously released as a commercial recording.

It would thus not be out of line to describe this project as a labor of love, which was probably shared by both pianist Mikhail Korzhev and Kenneth Woods, who conducts the English Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, one sign of the seriousness of purpose behind this project is the organization of the accompanying booklets, both of which are structured around three essays, “The Music-Historian’s Perspective,” by Peter Tregear, followed by “The Conductor’s Perspective” by Woods and “The Pianist’s Perspective” by Korzhev. It is as if everyone felt a need to offer an apologia for all the effort that went into this project, while the casual listener may find himself/herself reminded of the joke about a third grader’s book report that said simply, “This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.”

Why do Krenek’s advocates have to work so hard? Both volumes in this set make for highly engaging listening experiences. Furthermore, with few exceptions, Krenek tends to express himself in movements that are elegantly compact in their treatment of duration. Considering the over-grandiose scale of many recent new works, Krenek can be admired simply for the fact that he rarely, if ever, leaves one with the feeling that he is going on for too long. Yes, he clearly was interested in getting away from any sense of a tonal center; and this led to a serious consideration of Arnold Schoenberg’s serial techniques. However, his rhetorical dispositions tended to be on the lush side, making it easy to be drawn into his expressiveness, even in the absence of perfect cadences. Why is he as far “off the radar” in death as he was in life?

One possible answer may lie in my rant last Friday about the dangers of “a capitalist society whose value system is based only on market value.” Whatever appeal Krenek may have had (or now has) with music-makers never seemed to register with the marketing folks, who, together with the “focus groups” that tend to be their primary “source of knowledge,” have become the gatekeepers of both what is available to us and how we experience it. Those marketers would probably dismiss Krenek with some demeaning phrase like “a musician’s musician,” which is simply code for “I can’t make heads or tails out of this, so I conclude that you won’t either.”

A sidebar is appropriate here. My own perspective on music owes a great deal to the many opportunities I had to converse with John Cage, not only one-on-one but, more often than not, in group discussions. With his Zen-like perspective, Cage used to pride himself on his ability to express opinions on just about anything without showing the slightest sign of annoyance. However, the most memorable exception to this disposition came once in one of those group sessions when he was telling us about Josef Matthias Hauer, a contemporary of Schoenberg’s who had independently developed his own twelve-tone technique. Cage explained that the primary reason we did not know about Hauer could be traced back to Columbia Records. He claimed that Columbia decided that there was only so much contemporary music they could promote and that they would therefore focus their efforts almost entirely on Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. (Note that this ordering was alphabetical on my part and not intended to reflect any priorities at Columbia.) The result was that there was no room for Hauer on the “map” they were using for guidance. It is thus reasonable to assume that any other major recording label had some similar sort of “map” and that Krenek never managed to get onto any of them.

Clearly, the last thing I expect is a mass uprising in support of Krenek recordings to let those mindless marketing wonks know what we think of them. The more positive outlook is that there will always be people like Cage willing to spread the word about “outliers” that the marketers have dismissed as “statistically insignificant.” Clearly, different “outliers” will appeal to different tastes. However, Krenek is one of those “outliers” who had a keen sense of how many of us approach listening, whether it involves concert performances or recordings. In other words he has much to day to those willing to take their listening seriously. These two albums of his piano concerto music provide an appealing sample of those many things he has to say.

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