Hans-Christoph Rademann / Berlin RIAS Chamber Choir

Ernst Krenek: Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka

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One of the greatest successes enjoyed by the RIAS-Kammerchor in the late 20th century was the Harmonia Mundi recording of the Lamentations of Jeremiah of Ernst Krenek. This disc, Ernst Krenek: Sechs Motetten nach Worden von Franz Kafka, serves as a follow-up; it collects five choral cycles and one secular cantata that Krenek composed between his idealistic youth in Germany in 1922 and more embittered exile in the U.S. in 1959 with the caveat being that his arrangement, from 1937, of Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa is non-original. Even as broadly general and wide ranging as this selection is, it doesn't come close to exhausting Krenek's total output for chorus. As by virtue of recording the Lamentations of Jeremiah -- which may well represent the best Krenek has to offer in terms of choral music -- then here RIAS-Kammerchor would offer what it feels is next best in his catalog.

The title work is in the heritage of the RIAS-Kammerchor as Krenek composed it for the group in 1959, and this very fine performance suggests that the piece itself is in its blood, as well. Maintaining consistent volume in the recording of this piece is difficult, as it ranges from whispering to the verge of shouting, and among the six Kafka motets the listener may find themselves jockeying the volume a little bit. The volume and clarity of sound throughout the remainder is absolutely consistent, however, and on the whole the selection is dead on, particularly the Five Prayers, Op. 97 (1944), and the striking Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdischen, Op. 71 (Cantata on the Transience of Earthly Things, 1932), which demonstrates Krenek's extraordinary premonitory ability in the face of the conflagration soon to consume all of Europe. The one thing here that may not work for some listeners is Krenek's 1937 arrangement of Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa. Krenek retains Monteverdi's original vocal parts, but combining the madrigal's continuo lines into a single piano part, which Krenek dispenses with altogether in the opening section. As there are numerous period realizations of this music in Monteverdi's own manner readily available; one wonders why the RIAS-Kammerchor did not opt for another Krenek original in lieu of this relic.

As the Lamentations of Jeremiah is a single, contiguous work, it would be unreasonable to expect a similar unanimity of style from such a collection as this, though, to some extent there is common ground to everything here save the Monteverdi transcription; from his very first application of serial technique it appear Krenek was averse to utilizing it in a strict sense and it alternates with either tonal or "free" atonal sections. One gesture Krenek seems to use a lot -- particularly in the pieces collected into the first half of the disc -- is to pitch the sopranos upward into the stratosphere for a note or two and then to have them sink back down into the texture. This can wear out the listener by seeming overuse, but Krenek of course never planned to have all of this music heard at once; discretion is the better part of valor here and, to avoid burnout, to take this in smaller doses at first to get accustomed to Krenek's choral vocabulary is not a bad idea. Apart from these suggestions, and the reservations already stated regarding the Monteverdi, it can be said that this disc is nearly as outstanding as its predecessor and should prove an ample curative to any one possessed of the conventional wisdom that Ernst Krenek was a cold, serial-only number cruncher whose music is devoid of personality and emotional expression.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka, Op. 169
1 6:23
2 2:10
3 1:04
4 4:14
5 5:55
6 1:09
Five Prayers, Op. 97
7 1:06
8 1:58
9 1:15
10 2:24
11 1:54
12 2:01
13 1:38
14 18:58
Lamento della Ninfa
15 1:23
16 4:05
17 0:51
Drei gemischte A-Cappella-Chöre, Op. 22
18 5:02
19 4:36
20 2:35
Two Choruses on Jacobean Poems, Op. 87
21 1:27
22 1:49
blue highlight denotes track pick