Violin Concerto No.2
Organ Concerto No.2
Ernst Kovacic (violin) & Martin Haselbock (organ)
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ulf Schirmer and Lothar Zagrosek
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: February 2001
CD No: ORFEO C 076 001 A
Ernst Krenek (1900-91) was nothing if not prolific – the Second Organ Concerto, from 1983, is his opus 235. Born in Vienna as the nineteenth-century ended, Krenek’s long life embraced the twentieth as he studied, first, in his home country and then gravitated to Paris and America, becoming a US citizen. Eclectic in style, Krenek is probably best known for his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926) which is jazz-inspired. He also developed an interest in serialism and, as well as composing a number of stage-works, wrote a big catalogue of abstract, formal pieces that reflect his awareness of the methods available to his composing needs.
This CD relates a composer secure in twelve-note composing and one who obviously considered every brushstroke of orchestral colour that he used. Yet, is there not something impersonal about serial composition, which stifles the personality of the creative artist? I say this because much as I liked the sounds Horizont Umkreist makes, I don’t hear much that is particularly individual. That said, the concerto for violin proves compelling and that for organ is more liberated in its contextual choice of pitch and the creation of a more open-ended soundworld.
Horizon Circled (to translate) is six movements of angular lines, abrupt instrumental interjections and obtuse detail. In its extension of Schoenberg and Webern, it could be the work of any number of composers who followed the Second Viennese School’s path. That harmonic procedures are being followed is easy enough to perceive, but for all the intriguing tone-blends and -clashes, this 22-minute piece is the aural equivalent of getting out of a maze with its (seemingly) unrelated timbres and departures. Yet a particular phrase can caress the senses, an instrumental combination will engage the attention … and once the music enters its fifth and sixth sections there’s more heart to Krenek’s expression, something more quixotic in the way the orchestra is deployed and more passion as the final climax is reached. Horizon Circled, premiered by Sixten Ehrling, is a modernist study in construction, colour and texture, something skilfully achieved within this parameter – albeit a child of the ’sixties.
If Op.196 is concerned with constructivism, the Violin Concerto is more linear, perhaps because the need to highlight and complement the soloist requires greater reliance on longer lines and stronger melodic material. The 1954 Second Violin Concerto, Op.140, the earliest music here was, like all the pieces on this CD, written in California – yet there is nothing that suggests an American influence; one suspects that Krenek’s concert music derives entirely from within and is not influenced by place or circumstance. The half-hour concerto (for Tibor Varga) is an engaging piece and traditionally structured – three movements, the first in sonata-form with cadenza – which although serious in content includes a number of whimsical turns of phrase and enjoys some deft instrumental interchanges of ideas. Krenek is here more concerned with developing melodic cells; such cerebral inspiration doesn’t preclude a potent atmosphere or rich cantilena for the soloist in the slow movement. With echoes of Berg’s concerto throughout, this virile work closes with an energetic movement that is a dramatic resolution to an impressive piece. Anyone sympathetic to the scores of Humphrey Searle and Roger Sessions will be interested in hearing Krenek’s finely crafted work. Ernst Kovacic, an indefatigable champion of uncelebrated pieces for his instrument, plays with palpable conviction.
The Organ Concerto (which Zagrosek conducts) falls between two stools. It’s in four shortish movements (totalling twenty-two minutes) that never really gel but are bonded by imaginative orchestral nuances (some are returning mottoes) and an enigmatic, interior world created by aphoristic gestures. The organ, first among equals, while occasionally contributing familiar horror-film chord-clusters, is given more to confiding elusive, sotto-voce epigrams. The opening section is something of a preamble (a first movement in embryo), a dreamscape follows and is succeeded by an eerie scherzo. The (relatively) substantial finale enjoys some pleasing percussive intrusions as the music scurries to its conclusion, heralded by a trumpet fanfare and timpani tattoo and, straying in from a different age it seems, an antique harp embellishment. Probably not the most demanding music Martin Haselbock has ever mastered, this performance is obviously a fine one, and I’m pleased to have heard a piece that, for all its allusions to high seriousness, seems to have a bubbling sense of fun beneath the kaleidoscopic surface. Perhaps twelve-note music isn’t so restrictive after all.
The Austrian Radio tapes from 1983 (Organ Concerto) and 1990 offer excellent sound.