Krenek: Karl V

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Krenek
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: Karl V
PERFORMER: David Pittman-Jennings, Anne Gjevang, Turid Karlsen; Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno, Bonn Beethovenhalle Orchestra/Marc Soustrot
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 337 1082-2
Krenek’s Karl V is the kind of opera that can be appreciated on several different levels. A historical drama depicting events in the life of the 16th-century Habsburg emperor, it also grapples with the problems that faced Austria during the Thirties when Krenek’s vision of a ‘universal Catholicism’ was being threatened by the rise of Fascism. Not surprisingly, attempts to stage the work in the composer’s native Vienna in 1934 were sabotaged on political and musical grounds, and the opera’s first Austrian performance took place over 35 years later.

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The opera is forged through a fascinating mixture of music and spoken text, and incorporates elements of epic theatre and cinema that serve the double function of providing both the enactment of crucial episodes in Karl’s life, as well as a commentary on his behaviour.

With a cast involving a huge number of characters, including the Pope, Luther and Karl’s immediate family, not to mention choruses of clergymen, heretics, soldiers, nuns and ghosts, it must look mightily impressive on a large stage. Moreover Krenek demonstrates a sure sense of theatre, building the tension through each of its two parts to a powerful and convincing climax. Remarkably, it’s the earliest large-scale opera to use the 12-note system, though Krenek triumphantly refutes the notion that adherence to this technique inhibits creativity and emotional power.

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The composer’s widow has claimed that this performance, recorded in connection with the Beethoven Festival in Bonn last year, is by far the finest she has ever heard. With wonderful singing from David Pittman-Jennings as Karl and superb commitment from conductor Marc Soustrot and his fine orchestra, there is little reason to disagree with this verdict. Erik Levi