Ernst Krenek’s resumé reads like a pro forma template of Austro-Germany’s forgotten composers sent into exile by the political climate of the 1930s. Studying with Franz Schreker and a short-lived marriage to Mahler’s daughter Anna ensured a thorough grounding in heady Late Romantic expressionism, dabbling with atonality before embracing Hindemithian democratic craft and making a big splash in 1927 with Jonny Spielt Auf; a key example of Zeitoper.
Staged in over 100 European theatres, the pseudo-jazz inflected score and Jonny’s ethnicity would bring fame and notoriety but aroused the ire of the racial purifiers waiting to seize power. Krenek’s adoption of Schoenberg’s serial technique in the 1930s would seal his fate; his opera Karl V would be banned by the Nazis and he would be denounced as a “degenerate” so he decamped to Palm Springs, sheltering in academia for the rest of his life where he produced a steady stream of fine compositions that, apart from occasional performances in rebuilt Germany, were ignored.
His Reisebuch aus den Österreichischen Alpen song cycle of 1929 was a response to the previous year’s 100th anniversary of the death of Schubert. Spurred by a visit to the Alps, it is a revisionist take on the Schubert and his ilk’s Romantic wanderer poetry; while evoking childhood memories of the mountains he bemoans the invasion of tourists and their 20th-century clutter – rather than a sentimental 19th-century homage, a clinical detachment and obsession with planes, trains and automobiles puts it firmly in the 20th.
He shoots some amusing barbs at cloistered monks with mod cons in Kloster in den Alpen and the begrudging hospitality of the locals in Traurige Stunde. Politik is a chillingly perceptive précis of the times warning his countrymen to “send the bloody clown packing,” “or things will get even worse, and we shall perish.” Eventually city-slicker Krenek’s cynicism and wry observations give way and he allows the landscape to work its spell.
The performance is ideal; Boesch makes an excellent travel guide, his rich baritone is very easy on the ear and he catches the right balance of conversational intimacy and world-weary urbanity in Krenek’s texts while Vignoles’ self-effacing accompaniment provides a subtle background of sensations and tone-painting.
Four early songs by Zemlinsky are included as an appropriate makeweight. This is another important release in the rapidly expanding discography of an unfairly neglected master and an intriguing curiosity for Lieder-philes.