Sunday, 3 February 2013

Holzmair Krenek tonight at Wigmore Hall

Tonight at the Wigmore Hall, Wolfgang Holzmair sings a programme he devised nearly 20 years ago. Holzmair is an exceptionally erudite singer, who not only knows parts of the song repertoire others don't, but also knows why they are important, and why they can change the way we listen. In this unique programme he mixes songs from Ernst Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen with songs by Franz Schubert. This won't be any simple mixed recital: Holzmair's choices are carefully woven  together so the whole flows almost seamlessly.

 It's a very deliberate Ruckblick on Schubert through the perspective of a composer living in modern Austria, only a few years after the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Suddenly, the Austria Schubert knew was a rump, divested of the nations that made Vienna a world city, and the certainties Schubert knew were transformed. Krenek in the 1920's was the enfant terrible of his time, scandalizing audiences with his opera Jonny spielt auf, which featured a black saxophonist playing jazz.  Perhaps its success shook Krenek himself, for he took time out to immerse himself in Austrian tradition.  He spent many months in the Austrian Alps, living with the peasants, and experiencing their hardships. Like Schubert before him, he walked, closely engaged with nature and the rhythms of the human body. For years, I've been writing about the role of mountains in music, and how they've shaped the aesthetic of Mahler, Schubert, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and so on. Krenek is making a similar pilgrimage, getting to terms with landscape and its place in the Romantic Imagination.

The Schubert connection is just as significant, for Krenek was writing 100 years after Schubert's death. Schubert wasn't nearly as omnipresent as he is now. His works had only recently been catalogued, thanks to funds generated by interest in the centenary.  Krenek and many others at the time were on a learning curve as far as Schubert was concerned. So  Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is a new work, but also inspired by Krenek's response to Schubert as relatively "new" music.

The cycle also deals with Austrian identity and German domination, still sore points today. Krenek even writes about Nazis in Bavaria, barely 3 years after Hitler had been released from prison after the Beer Hall putsch. Some might have been lulled into thinking the party was neutralized. Not Krenek. Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen is not, as has been suggested, a "humorous" cycle though there's wit in it.

Perhaps Krenek's figuring out who he is, as a composer living in modern times, troubled by constant, threatening change. Back home, he comes across a strange, sleepy village in the suburbs. There's a motto written above a doorway. "Ich lebe, und weiss nicht wie lang. Ich sterbe, und weiss nicht, wann. Ich geh', und weiss nicht, wohin., mich wundert's dass ich noch Frolich bin." Suddenly, Krenek (who wrote the text as well as the music) find what might be the key: accepting that you'll never know the answers. Accepting that life's uncertain, yet making the most of it. Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen really is a parable for modern times. .

Here is a link to something I wrote about Krenek's Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen  a few years ago. Surprisingly almost no-one has written about it, so remember you saw it here first. Holzmair and Russell Ryan, who is also playing tonight, toured Europe and the US with this programme 15 years ago, when the Austrian government was sponsoring the "Year of the Mountains", featuring films, music, and literature associated with mountains.

Wolfgang Holzmair's probably done more than most to bring this song cycle into the mainstream.  He's passionate about Austria, and lesser-known Austrian composers, as diverse as Franz Mittler and Robert Stolz.  He deserves much credit. This is his 1998 recording, a beautiful mini album, lovingly illustrated with period photos. Track it down, because even if there are new versions, this one is the classic. All 20 songs plus an extra bonus the Fiedelleider op 64.  If you can't get a recording, get the score from Universal Edition. I heard him sing the programme at an intimate recital  in 1999, organised by the Austrian Cultural Forum, held in the Leighton House Museum before it was renovated. Holzmair has in fact recorded the "special" programme, but it's not commercially available anymore. I bought my copy from him personally after another semi-private recital organized by Richard Stokes, whose insights into this repertoire are exceptional. 

1 comment:

wh2010 said...

I attended the Schubert/Krenek recital at Wigmore Hall yesterday, and found both the choice of songs and the artistic presentation excellent. I suppose the reason for the low attendance at the Hall is that Krenek's song cycle does not mean much to the London audience (yet); but those who were present seemed to appreciate it a lot.
If you have a non-commercial CD of this unusual program it would be fantastic if you could upload mp3s. Many thanks in advance.