Vienna calling CC077

Vienna Calling: Sonatas and Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano
Ernst Krenek (1900-1991)
Kleine Suite, Op.28 (1924)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor, Op.120, No.1 (1894)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Vier Stücke (Four Pieces), Op.5 (1913)
Johannes Brahms
Sonata in E flat, Op.120, No.2 (1894)
Egon Wellesz (1885-1974)
Suite for solo clarinet, Op.74 (1956)
Zwei Stücke (Two Pieces), Op.34 (1922)
Ernst Krenek
Monologue for solo clarinet, Op.157 (1956)
Rhapsody, from School Music Op.85 (f) (1938-1939)
Anthony Pike (clarinet)
John Lenehan (piano)
rec. 2021, St George’s Church, Headstone, Harrow, London

This is a straightforward concept. The disc places Brahms’s two great Clarinet Sonatas in the “context of three Viennese composers following him”: Alban Berg, Egon Wellesz and Ernst Krenek.       

Alban Berg’s achievements need little introduction. Here we have his near-perfect Vier Stücke for clarinet and piano, first performed in 1919, six years after their composition. Berg adopts the “little piece” ethos promulgated by Webern and Schoenberg, popular in its day. He successfully fuses tonal and atonal principles. It is moot whether the work is understood as a four-movement sonata or as a set of discrete pieces. One commentator suggested something vaguer. In his liner notes for the Brahms/Berg disc on Paraty (517158), clarinetist Jérôme Comte imagines a “continuity where you no longer know exactly when a movement starts or finishes”. In fact, the interpretive problem with the Vier Stücke is in integrating formal procedures normally used in a large-scale composition into the “miniscule dimensions” of the present work, which last for less than seven minutes. For example, the opening phrase of the first number is used as a unifying feature throughout. Berg deploys interesting instrumental effects, including flutter tongue and pianissimo in the clarinet’s upper registers. I find Anthony Pike and John Lenehan’s cohesive performance satisfying.

Egon Wellesz was an honorary British composer/musicologist. Born in Vienna on 21 October 1885, he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, and befriended Alban Berg and Anton Webern. He spent much of his time studying 18th-century opera and Byzantine music. During the Nazi persecutions, he escaped from his post of Professor of Music at Vienna University and settled in England. He taught at Oxford University until his death on 9 November 1974. After the Second World War, Wellesz began to compose in earnest. His large catalogue includes nine outstanding symphonies. His style owes much to the Second Viennese School. Paul Conway in a profile of Wellesz has noted that his soubriquet was “The Fourth Man” of that grouping. Wellesz worked with serial techniques but was never beholden to them; he also infused his work with neo-classicism, Baroque forms and frequent nods to Mahler.

The short Zwei Stücke, “two intense visions”, are indebted to Schoenberg’s Expressionism and to Alban Berg. The writing is atonal with just the hint of a key centre here and there. The Moderato is haunting and melancholy, its wide-ranging solo line supported by a varied accompaniment. Equally diverse in such a fleeting time span, the Andante appassionato is agitated but has a reflective middle section. The performance demands that neither movement is hurried, so that the concentrated melodic and harmonic activity stands revealed. Despite beautifully measured playing here, the Zwei Stücke are sadly over before one realises it.

Some thirty-four years later, Wellesz completed his delightful Suite for solo clarinet. Once again, he has used expansive melodic intervals, but here the impact of atonalism seems less pronounced than in the earlier work. “Supple” is an appropriate adjective for this Suite. I am not quite sure I agree with the liner notes that there are “hints of traditional dance forms” here. It is characterised by more “classical” titles such as Rhapsody, Serenade, Scherzo and Dance, moving the music into more expressionistic moods.

Ernst Krenek was born in Vienna on 23 August 1900. He studied in Vienna and Berlin, before becoming assistant director at opera houses in Kassel and Wiesbaden. His major work in the 1920s was the jazz-infused opera Johnny spielt auf, which gained him considerable success, but also aroused the disapproval of the nascent Nazi administration. In 1938, Krenek moved to the United States, where he became a university lecturer. Stylistically, he was initially influenced by Mahler (to whose daughter Anna he was married for a year), but later adapted his music to what he deemed the best of contemporary styles, including twelve-tone procedures, jazz and even electronics and aleatoric techniques. Ernst Krenek died at Palm Springs, California, on 22 December 1991.

Krenek’s Kleine Suite for clarinet and piano really is diminutive at less than four minutes. It investigates a broad range of emotions. Written when he was under the spell of Stravinsky, it exploits neo-classical forms with a twist: Praeludium, Andantino-Air, Bourrée, Adagio and Moderner Tanz. It is this last movement that will surprise the listener with its “teasing and slightly jazzy” idiom. The Suite stayed unperformed for over forty years; it was only premiered in 1967.

Thirty-two years separate the Kleine Suite from the Monologue. Once again it is presented as a suite but, let me cite Peter Tregear (his liner notes for a disc reviewed here): “Over five short movements Krenek presents something akin to a multi-movement sonata-structure in miniature.” Whether this is a better way of approaching this work is up to the listener. I found the fusion of serialism, jazz and the final peasant’s dance quite endearing. The soloist captures the sense of humour and the affection that permeates this short piece.

Krenek’s Rhapsody is the sixth of a set of nine pieces entitled School Music, penned shortly after his arrival in the USA. The booklet explains that they were devised to “develop the facility for musical understanding in students and young performers”. Each one was for a different combination of instruments. The Rhapsody juxtaposes a song-like andante with an idiosyncratic dance. Conceived in a straightforward tonal-ish style, this lovely thoughtful piece belies its pedantic origins.

The main works on this disc are Brahms’s ever-popular Clarinet Sonatas, part of a late flowering of his chamber music inspired by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. The two Sonatas are regarded as a complementary pair, with “contrasting moods, keys and proportions”. The overall tone of the four-movement Sonata No.1 is one of supressed emotion. The Allegro appassionato holds an almost sinister theme and a nostalgic tune in tension. The movement ends with a magical coda. The slow  Andante un poco adagio is dreamlike in its gentle and deliberate exposition, making the listener want it to continue for ever. The Allegretto grazioso is hardly a traditional scherzo: the liner notes suggest that it is Brahms’s final bittersweet tribute to the Viennese waltz. Completely unlike what has preceded it, the finale is vibrant and exuberant. Changing from the four flats of the opening, Brahms concludes this sonata in F major. Happiness and joy reign: all the pensive musings of the past three movements are cast to the wind. The performance here balances these diverse sentiments and expectations.

Sonata No.2 is relaxed and laid back. Any performance must give the listener a sense of reassurance. I think of Brahms as a father figure, brooding over his musical family down through the ages… The opening movement is typically Allegro amabile, but here and there one finds moments of passion and even asperity. The Allegro appassionato is stormy in places, but the Sturm und Drang is offset by a delicious melody leading to a massive climax. The finale is a set of variations, based on a song Brahms had written many years earlier, Dämmrung sancta sic von oben (Dusk has fallen from on high). The liner notes explain that the variations evolve with “classical” symmetry and restraint; they explore deep resignation with a certain youthful optimism. Pike and Lenehan give a warm and moving account of this Sonata, allowing the listener to share in “Brahms’s sense that his (and our) life is drawing to a close”.

Jonathan Burton’s liner notes give a good introduction to the music on this disc. A little bit more description and contextualisation would have been most welcome. The clarinetist’s short essay Vienna Calling: Some Observations goes some way to providing this background. There are resumés of the performers. I appreciated the evocative black and white graphics featuring the Wiener Riesenrad (Vienna Ferris Wheel). Photographs of each composer are included.

This is a well-balanced recital: two centrepieces and several aptly chosen miniatures.

John France

Availability: Samek Music