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James H. North
Fanfare, May 2009

Ernst Krenek wrote operas—20 of them—at the drop of a hat, both in Germany (Jonny spielt auf, 1926) and in the United States. What Price Confidence? is a one-act chamber opera for four singers and piano, written in 1945 at the suggestion of four Metropolitan Opera singers, who never got around to performing it. The premiere took place at a German opera house in 1962. As with most (all?) of his operas, Krenek wrote his own libretto, in this case making up his own story. It is a charming piece of fluff, both musically and dramatically. Its theme is trust and mistrust between two couples. Those who lack confidence gain it, and vice versa; plot details needn’t concern us. The 12-tone musical structure is well disguised, except for a few brief piano interludes. The setting (London in the Victorian era), personal character, and even weather are cleverly suggested by a few notes: Big Ben striking, the patter of rain, momentary quotations from Tristan and God Save the Queen. The vocal lines are often merely a step above parlando, although there are some odd leaps and the women do have a few high notes to chirp. Everything about this performance is satisfactory: neat, clean, and light; every word of text is intelligible, aided by bright recorded sound from the Purchase College Arts Center, Purchase, New York…The opera runs just under 40 minutes…Phoenix Edition with three sets of songs. The booklet makes no mention of the songs, other than track listings with song titles, plus what is listed in this review’s head note. There are no texts, no discussion, nor are we told who sings what, so the following information combines Google, Grove, and guesswork; caveat emptor. The 1972 Three Sauter Songs—misspelled Lauter in Grove—are to German texts by Lily von Sauter (1913–1972). The 1946–47 Four Songs, in English, are Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the 1928 Three Songs, op. 56, are Goethe. Sauer and Hopkins are set in Krenek’s most Schoenbergian style, Goethe in a wild mix of neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Bartók, Hindemith, and everyone else active in the 1920s. The music is alluring despite its confused provenance. I haven’t obtained English translations of the Goethe nor any version of the Sauter, and Hopkins has always been anathema to me, so I won’t attempt to evaluate the performances—which are shared among the singers—except to say that all are sung with beauty and apparent sensitivity.

Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide, March 2009

Having undergone all sorts of indignities at the hands of the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s, Ernst Krenek (1900–91) moved to the US in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1945. That same year four Metropolitan Opera singers asked him to write something they could perform in concert with piano accompaniment.

The result was What Price Confidence?, a chamber opera they never learned (no one performed it until 1962). The story is about two couples with trust and faithfulness problems. The libretto is in English, every word is crystal clear, voice qualities are beautiful, and the piano playing excellent. But it is typical 12-tone Krenek, and I grow less and less interested in music that sounds this bloodless.

There is much atonality in two of the three song sets that complete the program, but there is much thoughtfulness, too. Soprano Ilana Davidson, who plays Gloria in the opera, is the soloist in Three Songs on poems by Lily von Sauter. Perhaps most interesting is ‘Der Sternenhimmel’, where pianist Linda Hall strums strings and thumps wood. Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings the mezzo role of Vivian in the opera, sings two of Four Songs on poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins; tenor Richard Clement (Richard in the opera) sings the other two. Listeners unfamiliar with these songs will be surprised to hear the main theme from Bach’s Art of Fugue in ‘On a Piece of Music’. Even more striking, though, is the neoclassicism of Three Lieder (texts by Goethe), a remarkable 1928 set that stands like a beacon of tonality in a sea of abstraction. Baritone Christopher Nomura is the soloist (and Edwin in the opera).

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