KRENEK: What Price Confidence. 3 Sauter Songs. 4 Songs. 3 Songs.
Ilana Davidson (soprano); Susan Narucki (soprano); Richard Clement (tenor); Christopheren Nomura (baritone); Linda Hall (piano).
Phoenix Edition PE 130 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:35

Twelve-tone wit. A composer's composer, Ernst Krenek employed several styles throughout his rather long career. He began as a post-Mahlerite and flitted in the Twenties from idiom to idiom, including a brief period under the influence of jazz and Les Six, which resulted in his biggest hit, the opera Jonny spielt auf. Eventually, he settled somewhere near the Schoenberg camp, although he mellowed a bit in his old age. I'm not all that fond of Jonny and prefer in general his atonal stuff.

A chamber opera for four singers and piano, What Price Confidence? came about from a group of Metropolitan Opera singers who performed opera arias with piano for audiences. One of the singers asked Krenek for the opera, but finally the group had to admit that the music lay beyond them. The opera, composed in 1945, finally premiered in 1962. Krenek composed the opera specifically for the group and so used two sopranos, tenor, bass, and piano. The plot applies Melville's Confidence Man (Krenek admitted the influence) to romantic farce. Two couples -- Richard and Vivian, Edwin and Gloria -- have marital problems. Richard is cheating with Vivian. Edwin suspects, but Gloria tells him that he must have "confidence" in her and in himself. Richard, a genuine heel, nevertheless feels guilty, especially since Vivian claims she has the confidence to trust him -- in this case, confidence in herself. By the end of the opera, through a series of coincidences as old as Plautus, the couples have regrouped. Vivian and Edwin, the true lovers, are now together.

The little opera is dodecaphonic, so don't go looking for Puccini-like tunes. Krenek does, however, pull off the neat trick of lightness and fun within an idiom noted for gloom and Angst. I should add that the superb performance helps. All four singers not only get the notes, but also sharply limn their characters. One notes the flightiness and selfishness of Gloria, the bluster and inner insecurity of Richard, the calm strength of Vivian, and the tendency to brood of Edwin.

The opera is the highpoint of the disc. I complain about most of the rest, in no small measure due to the truly horrible accompanying booklet. This is a CD of songs, essentially, and songs have texts, none of which -- except that of the opera -- is given here. The singers' diction is good, but not good enough to do without some printed help. Also, there's nothing on any of the songs (most of which are in German) and damn little on Krenek. Instead, we get inflated biographies of the performers. This strikes me as an indulgent misuse of limited resources, like the Merrill Lynch Master of the Universe who redecorated his office with 1.2 million bucks of taxpayer money.

Consequently, very few of the songs made much impression on me. I would have loved to have known at least what the composer wanted to express. I did like the 3 Songs on Goethe poems (I think from 1928). The idiom was tonal but unpredictable. I especially liked the variety of textures in each song (and in the opera, for that matter). The 4 Songs on texts by Goethe, possibly from 1927, are atonal, but I liked especially "On a piece of music," which pits the main theme from Bach's Musical Offering against a craggy vocal line.

The performers do a terrific job, singing and playing not atonal music, but music. They sing the opera as they would sing Zauberflöte, with vim and élan. Standards have risen as dodecaphonic music have become more familiar to performers. However, I'm actually mad at the producer or at the nebbishes who designed the booklet. Krenek is hardly a household name or a popular taste. They had the opportunity to seriously champion his music and blew it.

S.G.S. (February 2009)