Krenek Complete Symphonies – Outstanding Overview

It took a while but CPO finally issued the last installment of their cycle Ernst Krenek symphonies. Krenek is best known for his Weill-like opera Johnny Spielt Auf, a product of the Weimar years. It’s not really a fair representation of Krenek’s style.

He was much more interested in the atonal compositions of Schoenberg and Webern, and that interest is reflected in his orchestral compositions. The first symphony (1921) is neo-romantic, reflecting the influence of his teacher, Franz Schreker. But even in this work, the harmonies have a slight edge to them, and it’s easy to hear where Krenek wants to go.

The second symphony (1922) is more aggressively atonal, but there are still lyrical post-romantic elements there that keep the work sounding a little more conservative than Weber. The third symphony (also written in 1922) has Krenek coming into his own as a composer, and even though it could be classified as atonal, there’s a compelling logic behind the work that makes it more than just an academic exercise. The harmonies, though dissonant, are expressive, and the symphony’s charged with energy.

The fourth and fifth symphonies have no elements of the early Krenek’s style. And yet, while they encompass the most modern aesthetic of the day, they have a surface organization and coherence that isn’t as readily apparent in other atonal composers of the 1950’s.

All in all, these five symphonies are an exciting body of work. Each composition has its own character. Although Krenek kept pace with the avant garde, each work is unmistakably in Krenek’s compositional voice, providing a continuity across the set.

An additional treat is the fillers – the Concerto Grosso No. 2 and Potpourri show a more relaxed and more lyrical side to the composer. Krenek chose to write atonal music, but these works show he had the skill to be melodic when he wanted to. A fine set that should do much to raise Krenek’s profile.

Ernst Krenek: Complete Symphonies
NDR Radiophilharmonie; Takao Ukgaya, Alun Francis, conductors

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