CD RELEASE - Serenade - Works for Clarinet and Strings

by Krenek, Gál and Penderecki


The century was only twenty-one years old, and so was ERNST KRENEK, when his Serenade, Op. 4 was premièred on 31 July 1921 at the newly launched “Donaueschingen Chamber Music Performances for the advancement of contemporary music.” The event soon came to be known as Donaueschingen Festival, now one of the oldest specialized music festivals worldwide: Krenek’s music has occasionally been heard there since then – albeit as a series of utterly contrasting works one would hardly ascribe to the same composer. Such variety comes from Krenek’s chameleon-like capacity of metamorphosis, of which he was well aware. He accepted that he came off “badly compared with the great masters of the past, whose work presents itself to us as a well-rounded, logically organized unit.” We can already sense something of Krenek’s bewildering stylistic diversity in his 1919 Serenade. At first sight, it seems to cling stubbornly to the style of Krenek’s teacher, Franz Schreker, and to Viennese Late Romanticism. It contains a whiff of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade; however, in the first movement’s featherweight, airy tapestry of sounds, we can already observe a certain tendency toward the linear progressions and imitative gestures we tend to associate with early music. This tendency becomes more pronounced in the course of the work. Still, Krenek maintains a carefree serenade mood thanks to swaying rhythms and several passages where the strings are plucked like mandolins. The clarinet, meanwhile, is allowed to demonstrate its full potential – disguising itself at times as a flute, at others as a bassoon. The work concludes with a structurally complex Allegretto grazioso, culminating in a passage with trills that transition into a conflict-laden fugato (Allegro vivace) before finally regaining the initial, more leisurely tempo.

In 1933, when the “messengers of Hell,” as Krenek called them, gained control of the German state, the Donaueschingen Festival came to its provisional end as an avant-garde event; many of its protagonists were forced into exile. After temporary sojourns in Turkey and Switzerland, Paul Hindemith managed to arrive in the U.S. by 1940. Ernst Krenek had already accomplished the same trajectory two years earlier. On the other hand, HANS GÁL, under threat as a Jew in Germany and, from 1938, also in his native country of Austria, found refuge in the United Kingdom – although initially only as an intern in a camp, as he would vividly describe in his book Musik behind Barbed Wire.

Hans Gál’s style remained rooted in the Vienna tradition of the “long” 19th century. His 1935 Serenade is an elegant, melodious work that never broaches the limits of tonality. It is no coincidence that Gál’s stylistic attitude and solid craftmanship recall the mastery of late Brahms and the latter’s late infatuation with an instrument: “Fräulein Clarinet.” That was also Brahms’s teasing nickname for Richard Mühlfeld, the famous Meiningen clarinetist whose artistry inspired the composer to write several late chamber music works. The clarinet also played a considerable role in Gál’s output as a composer. His lifelong affinity with Brahms, evident in the number of books Gál wrote and edited, was kindled in his years of study under the wing of Eusebius Mandyczewski, who had previously been one of Brahms’s closest friends and confidants in Vienna. Gál later summed up all he owed to Brahms: “Whoever is not prepared at the Last Judgment to stand up for every note they ever wrote should not even start composing.“ Brahms, well-known for his scrupulous attitude, would undoubtedly have subscribed to the same motto. It is fitting that many of Gál’s works were brought out by the London branch of Simrock, a publishing house that had mainly built its reputation in the 19th century thanks to Brahms. However, none of these circumstances would ever justify labeling Gál as a mere epigone. Particularly in the second and fourth movements of the Serenade, we can tell that Gál was a contemporary of Hindemith and Krenek. Here, he adds his own generous helping of self-assurance and refined humor, thus distancing himself from the melancholy musical mood of Brahms, his supposedly overbearing model (with whom the Intermezzo and the first movement’s outer sections admittedly still reveal a great affinity).

Whereas Krenek returned to Donaueschingen with new works in 1951 and 1976, Hans Gál no longer played any sort role on the postwar avant-garde scene. His name as a composer sank into oblivion outside the UK. Only Austria, his native country, honored him once more by awarding him the State Prize in 1957, six years before Krenek. But Gál could no longer attain the degree of success he had reached in the 1920s, when his Overture to a Puppet Show and his opera Die Heilige Ente were performed dozens of times. Only after the turn of the 21st century did interest in Gál’s output begin to stir once more: not only chamber music works such as the Serenade were performed in public again, but also Lieder, along with orchestra works and stage works here and there. New editions and scores of Gál’s oeuvre began to appear.

Gál was a composer who tended to hark back to the past; Krenek, in turn, was a restless innovator, and we can leaf through his output as a sort of compendium of modernity. KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI, on the other hand, was both a traditionalist and a trailblazer. In 1959, he entered the Polish Composer Society youth competition with three anonymous works that won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes, thus unmistakably proving his rank as one of his country’s outstanding musical talents.

Anaklasis, a composition featuring interlocking soundscapes and timbres, was premièred in Donaueschingen in 1960 and became an iconic work of contemporary music. Penderecki soon followed with his St Luke Passion, and those two works established his rank as a central figure, destined to reap awards and invitations far and wide on the international music scene. Penderecki’s aura began to fade, however, when he started to hark back to traditionally notated, emotionally expressive Neo-Romanticism in works such as his 1977 Violin Concerto. Critics and colleagues vilified him for his proximity to Romanticism, but audiences remained faithful, and performers never ceased to admire him. Penderecki was also successful as an orchestra conductor. Films featuring his music, such as Kubrick’s Shining, extended his reputation beyond the classical music concert hall. Penderecki was beguiled by the clarinet’s enormous versatility, which kindled his creativity in terms of timbre. Only the violin, which he played with great mastery, figured more often in his output. The clarinet was prominent in every one of his creative phases, from his early works (Miniatures, 1956) to old age (Concerto doppio, 2017). In 1993, around the same time as his 2nd Violin Concerto entitled Metamorphosen, Penderecki composed his Clarinet Quartet, which exists in a further version for string orchestra, entitled Sinfonietta No. 2. Here we are dealing with a tranquil, subdued work that almost ventures into Schubertian confines, featuring a tender nocturnal dialogue between the clarinet and the viola as the first movement’s point of departure. The second movement, a ghostlike “Scherzo,” scurries by in a rapid series of ostinato crotchets, followed, in turn, by an even briefer “Tempo di valse” in quavers. The last movement is more extended than all the previous ones combined; the clarinet and the viola (the two instruments that introduced the first movement) now present an insistent figure of repeated neighboring notes that alternate to and fro. Clarinet and viola interlock with the violin and cello, which venture farther afield in terms of melodic range. All instruments then join in a sort of disintegration process as suggested by the title Abschied, which means “Farewell.”

© 2024 Johannes Jansen