wed 22/11/2017

Florian Boesch, Roger Vignoles, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Florian Boesch, Roger Vignoles, Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch, Roger Vignoles, Wigmore Hall

An extraordinary musical adventure in the Austrian Alps

Florian Boesch: It's only fitting that this great lieder-singer should tackle this witty cycle of anti-lied

Ernst Krenek is probably best remembered nowadays as the composer of Jonny Spielt Auf – the quintessential Zeitoper of Weimar Germany and later the archetype of all that was designated “degenerate” in art by the Nazi regime. And perhaps also as – briefly – the husband of Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav. But Krenek was far more than that. He was a magpie collector of styles and influences whose large corpus of work reflects almost every major 20th-century trend. From Romanticism to jazz, serialism, neo-Renaissance modality and even electronic works, Krenek’s history is the history of music itself.

Among a body of extraordinary music – extraordinary in every sense – the song-cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is surely among the most striking. Over the course of 20 songs (words and music both by Krenek himself) he manages to sustain both a homage to and a satire on the great German cycles of Schubert, Schumann, even Mahler, with their mountains charged with Romantic urgency of emotion.

A journey through the Alps here becomes a rather more banal affair, plagued with tourists and technology – electric trains, automobiles, and all the paraphernalia of modern life, psychological as well as social. Krenek muses, like the good Austrian he is, on man’s relationship with nature, but unlike his predecessors comes to the frank conclusion of a pragmatist: they can never be one, so he must “love the world as it is”.

Apart from Wolfgang Holzmair, this awkward, brilliant work has had few champions. Which makes last night’s performance by Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Roger Vignoles all the more interesting. A pre-performance discussion focused our listening; for Boesch the emphasis is on humour, exasperation and sly, wry social critique, underplaying the work’s darkest questions in true Weimar style – this is Schubert by way of Brecht and Weill.

No discussion could have prepared us, however, for Boesch’s conversational delivery. Crooning, speak-singing and generally breaking every rule of Good Technique, he found the textural answer to Krenek’s determinedly un-beautiful texts. To release the full loveliness and power of which this voice is capable would be to misunderstand this work, to succumb to the very urges its narrator urges us to reject. The voice also plays an unusual role, called on to play the straight-man to the joker of a piano part – smoothly and wittily dispatched by Vignoles (pictured left) – that pretends to conform to tonality only so it can consistently and ear-twistingly thwart all anticipated rules and patterns. By the final Epilogue the assault has exhausted itself, attacking on a whole new flank with its naked melody and harking piano interjections.

A musical manifesto against atonalism, offering proof that tonality was not played out, the Reisebuch more than makes its case. So why is it not programmed and performed more? Perhaps, as this concert demonstrated, it’s as much to do with context as anything inherent to the cycle itself. Its preoccupations and textures are not those of the lieder recital – the very nose-thumbing contrary, in some respects, making it an awkward sell for audiences and an even harder partner for other repertoire. Holzmair gets round this by pairing Schubert songs with Krenek’s own, and it was hard to let Boesch leave the stage after a mere 45 minutes of music without hoping for an interval followed by a little Dichterliebe or similar.

But perhaps it’s right and proper to let this prickly, confronting work have the last word. Having reset your ears and expectations it ends with a chuckle, leading you to – what? Existential despair? Alcoholic oblivion? Shoulder-shrugging contentment? All of the above, and more.

Comments

I only ever knew Krenek's Jonny spielt auf. Then I fell in love with his neo-classical third piano sonata played by Glenn Gould and decided to explore further. The Symphony 3 didn't do anything for me, so that was that. Your piece inspires me to pick the ball up again!

I have heard Krenek’s “Reisebuch aus den osterriechischen Alpen”” in Holzmair’s complete recording (which includes the shorter “Fiedlieder”, written a few months later), and in his Krenek/Schubert program; the latter was recorded in a concert given Vienna some years ago which is, I think, still available from Austrian Radio’s music shop (ORF). The contrast between the nature-empathising and, dare I say it, somewhat self-absorbed world of 19thC Romanticism, and Krenek’s acerbic look at the same landscape in the 20thC, is endlessly fascinating. Not to mention that the Krenek text can be remarkably prescient e.g. for postcard writing instead of looking at the scenery, read texting on mobile phones; and the morbid account of villagers earning a few pennies by charging tourists to see their charnel house is chillingly near the bone - in this case, literally. Elsewhere we find the silence disturbed by gramophones, and demands for golf-courses - some of it could have been written yesterday!

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