Although Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) embraced many musical styles and factions over the course of his lifetime, including jazz, his song-cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is a relatively early work (1929) expressed in a generally neo-Romantic musical language. The composer whose style this composition most resembles – excepting for some Schubertian lyricisms – is the Swiss composer Frank Martin, with his taut chromatic style that draws close to Schoenbergian atonality at times but remains rooted in a generally functional harmonic progression, which equally remains more purposeful than an Impressionistic indulgence in colour for its own sake (Martin’s German settings of the Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann being the most obvious example).
Krenek’s theme of searching for one’s homeland (Heimat to use the pregnant German noun) reflects a High Modernist preoccupation with displacement and disillusion, but as its form and subject might suggest, the cycle was inspired by Schubert’s examples, following the centennial commemoration of his death the year before.
Krenek’s own text for the sequence of twenty songs is, by and large, not grandiloquent but proceeds almost by journalistic observation, though done with more thoughtfulness and irony than that might suggest. Schubert and the other Romantics sought refuge in the sublime, uncorrupted grandeur of nature; and less than fifteen years before Krenek’s composition, Richard Strauss still found a metaphor for the development and musing of the German soul and mind in his Alpine Symphony. But Krenek’s journey, more than a decade after the First World War, is now an individual search for a sense of belonging, and in exploring the realm of nature once again, he encounters only its despoliation.
Florian Boesch captures with a dry humour the satirical bent of a number of the Songs, particularly so in the quiet, almost deadpan delivery of some of them, such as in satirising the utilitarian interests of the tourist hordes who flock to the Alps in search of transient gratification (in ‘Alpenbewohner’ he notes the search of visitors from UK shores for the “English church” and an “Alpine golf course”). Much of Boesch’s interpretation is in accordance with the unfussy style of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) aesthetic which remains unperturbed by strong feelings of passion, enthusiasm, disgust, or invective, for instance even when declaiming the biting irony of ‘Auf und ab’. But he does blossom into a more full-blown lyricism for the first and sixth songs for example, and ends up almost shouting out at the climax of the latter which notes how even a cemetery and its ossuary in a mountain village has been turned into a macabre tourist attraction.
The Songs tend to constitute fairly brief vignettes within the overall scheme – only four play for longer than three minutes – as Krenek comes to realise that happiness is not to be found in a particular place as such (Goethe’s hankering after Italy is also referenced), but in a state of mind, to “love the world as it is! Love yourself as you are!” and find freedom in that. The conclusion of the cycle is good-natured and affable, like a shrug of the shoulder, and Boesch conveys that with his quietly, and artfully, non-committal tone and manner of interpretation.
Roger Vignoles’s playing is marked by a more playful and lyrical impetus, as in the slightly jazzy rhythms accompanying ‘Verkehr’ (Transport), the lilting contribution to ‘Heimweh’ (Homesickness), and the ironically upbeat background for ‘Traurige Stunde’ (Sad hour). But, although he sounds slightly recessed in the recording in relation to Boesch, the effect is a generally happy one in not unsettling the singer’s overall approach.
The selection of settings by Alexander Zemlinsky are also early (composed by the time he was twenty-two) and hint at the rich chromaticism of his later works, but do not otherwise bear much of an individual style in their brevity, other than an essentially Schumannesque or Brahmsian Romanticism, though they are no less charming for that. Boesch sounds slightly reedy in the higher tessitura required in the first two, whilst he conveys adroitly the different voices (of the disillusioned rider, and the Lorelei) with appropriate registers in Eichendorff’s ‘Waldgespräch’. Vignoles again provides astute accompaniment – restful and steady in the nocturnal scene of Heine’s ‘Wandl’ ich im Wald des Abends’, and dreamlike in the same poet’s ‘Die schlanke Wasserlilie’.
It may be accidental that Krenek’s work has been committed to disc at a time of resurgent, embattled nationalisms, and the aggressive assertion of sectarian differences on the international political stage – and perhaps in the face of such intractable problems, “Art for art’s sake” is not such a bad response on the part of the individual after all. But it certainly provides food for thought in arguing for the acceptance of reality with its untidiness and compromises, rather than immoderate, strident posturing, and Boesch’s performance urges that in a quietly persuasive manner. The booklet includes texts and translations.