In a booklet note accompanying this disc, author/teacher/conductor Peter Tregear writes, "Ernst Krenek's reputation as a 'one-man history of twentieth century music' is nothing if not well deserved." I think he probably means that the Austrian-born American composer Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) produced over 240 works in his lifetime, adopting a variety of compositional forms along the way, from late-Romantic to atonality, from neoclassicism to experimental jazz, and from modal counterpoint to twelve-tone writing, serial techniques, and electronic music. He mainly earned a living, though, by teaching, lecturing, and completing the unfinished material of other composers, and today he may be more famous for his short-lived marriage to the daughter of Gustav Mahler than for anything he composed.
Anyway, in 2016 Toccata Classics released the first volume of Krenek's complete piano concertos with Mikhail Korzhev, piano, and Kenneth Woods leading the English Symphony Orchestra. It contained the first three of Krenek's four solo piano concertos, and this second volume with the same forces contains the fourth one, along with several other, shorter concerto works that make Volume Two even more varied and interesting than the first disc.
The program begins with Krenek's Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 123, which he wrote in 1950. What I said about the performance team last year still applies: Korzhev's piano playing is scintillating, Woods's direction is warmly encouraging, and the orchestra is uniformly precise. For me, the Fourth Concerto is also the most fascinating and perhaps the most consciously modern, meaning it's nothing that you're going to go away humming, but it's something that may rivet your attention from beginning to end. Also, interestingly, Korshev, Woods, and the English Symphony give it its premiere recording. You'd think somebody in the past sixty-odd years would have found the music attractive enough to record, but I guess some things just get lost in the shuffle. Thank goodness for people like Woods championing a good cause.
Next is the Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 127, written in 1951, in which pianist Eric Huebner joins Mr. Korzhev. It's in four short movements and alternates between the sublime and the frenetic. The fact that I did not particularly enjoy it seems irrelevant; it's vibrant, pulsating, and dynamic in the capable hands of the soloists and orchestra.
After that is the Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, Op. 124 from 1950, with violinist Nurit Pacht joining Mr. Korzhev. This work is in six or seven movements, depending on how you break up the final one. Despite the number of movements, the whole piece is quite brief, the movements only two or three minutes each. The dialogue between the violin and piano (the violin usually dominant) is casual and intimate, the music dance-like. The performers do up the work in an elegant manner, giving it a modern yet quaintly old-fashioned feeling.
The program ends with the Little Concerto for Piano and Organ, Op. 88 from 1940, with organist Adrian Partington joining in the fun. The orchestral accompaniment is the most diminutive in this selection, the score almost salon-like in its chamber setting. The music is also at its most poetic here, the organ gently filling in a quiet background. There is nothing ostentatious about the piece, just a sweet, generally tenderhearted little ditty performed with warmth and affection.
Producer Michael Haas and engineer Ben Connellan recorded the concertos at Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales in September 2016. The sound is a little close and sometimes highlights instruments unnecessarily, but it nevertheless provides good orchestral depth and excellent clarity. There is nothing harsh, bright, or edgy about the sonics; indeed, it is quite the contrary, with smooth, detailed sound all the way around, especially the highs, which truly shimmer and glisten.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: