Schulhoff shapeshifter DE3566

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Concerto for piano and small orchestra, Op. 43 (1923)
Five Pieces for string quartet (1923)
Suite [No. 3] for piano left hand (1926)
Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1927)
Susi for piano solo (1937)
DELOS DE3566 [77]

All the works on this CD are new to me. I am grateful to Rebecca Stewart for her outstanding liner notes which helped me prepare this review.

Here is Erwin Schulhoff’s story in a nutshell. He was born in Prague on 8 June 1894. At only ten, he entered the Conservatory, encouraged by Antonín Dvořák. Further study in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne followed. His teachers included Claude Debussy and Max Reger. After military service with the Austrian Army during the First World War, and a spell in a prisoner-of-war camp, he returned to Germany where he became a member of the avant-garde. He was influenced by jazz, popular music, the Second Viennese School and the Dadaist movement. In 1923, he returned to Prague to compose and perform and later teach at the Conservatory. He was a Jew and a lifelong communist, so he was inevitably persecuted by the Nazis. In the end, he applied for and received Soviet citizenship but was imprisoned at Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria before he could leave. He died there of tuberculosis on 18 August 1942.

Schulhoff wrote a deal of music, including eight symphonies (the 7th and the 8th are unfinished), ballet scores, two piano concertos, the opera The Flames, as well as piano and chamber works. His latter compositions, guided by Socialist Realism, major on subjects such as the Spanish Civil War, hunger riots in Czechoslovakia, and the prowess of the Red Army.

I do not mind admitting that I was blown away by the Concerto for piano and small orchestra. The liner notes sum up its overall effect: it “packs an abundance of vastly varying styles and moods into the span of about twenty-one minutes.” Yet, this is not a string of beads of varying sizes. It is a unified work with integrity and a strict formal structure. In each of the three movements, it explores romanticism with a touch of impressionism, and nods to modernism and jazz. The latter is particularly prominent in the Allegro alla jazz finale, where Schulhoff calls for an eighteen-piece percussion section that includes cog rattle, cowbell, sleigh bells, castanets, tambourine and siren. Foxtrot and Romany music lead towards a riotous conclusion, but not before a magical sostenuto section. Interestingly, the Concerto was played in London on 2 January 1928 under the baton Ernest Ansermet, with the composer as soloist. I must investigate.

The Five Pieces for string quartet, dedicated to Darius Milhaud, can be construed as a “dance suite” which nods towards the Baroque models. The reality is, as the liner notes suggest, that this is a “deconstruction” of its epitome. The first movement Alla valse Viennese combines French and Italian worlds. It is notated in common time, but Schulhoff wanted it played as if it were 3/4. It is charmingly confusing, and mixes elements of Ländler and Walzer. The Alla serenata is menacing in mood; various string bowing effects add to the foreboding. It is nothing like the serenade of popular imagination. The third movement is Alla czeca. Here Schulhoff once again seems to muddle dance rhytms (deliberately!). Is it really a Polka? The Alla tango milonga (faster pace, fewer pauses, more rhythmic walking than a basic tango) is sad and sometimes sultry. The final dance is a rip-roaring Tarantella, which should certainly bring the house down. The piece is played here with remarkable skill and enthusiasm. A work of this vitality ought to be in the standard repertoire of all string quartet ensembles.

The liner notes do not mention that the Suite for piano left hand is the third example of a piano suite. Jazz here is one resource. Modality is prevalent, especially in the opening Preludio, luminous and flowing. Not having seen the score, I take it on trust that there is only one accidental to disturb the flow of the poignant Air. The Zingara (translates as Italian female Romani) could have emerged from one of Bartók’s collections of folk song. It is a cheeky dance, characterised by biting major seconds, bare fifths and fast moving quavers. The Improvisazione is remarkable: time seems to stand still in this beautiful contemplation. I like the description of the Finale: “It is like a dance hall coming alive.” Using several voices, it soon develops into a romp with heavy stomping and rhythmic boldness. The listener is left marvelling at the technical brilliance of the soloist being able to play this Suite with his left hand alone. At nearly 19 minutes, it is too long for an encore, but it does deserve its place in the recital room.

In the period when Schulhoff wrote the Violin Sonata No.2, he was often influenced by jazz. Yet, it is Bartók and Berg that are the obvious models here. The liner notes give a detailed analysis of this Sonata. Suffice it to say, the four contrasting movements explore a wide range of expression. Elements of folk dance appear in the opening Allegro impetuoso and in the wayward Burlesca. The elegiac second movement Andante nods towards Alban Berg. The finale Allegro risoluto is a kind of summation of the Sonata, with several cross references to preceding material. Adam Millstein and Dominic Cheli’s performance points up the virtuosity and brilliance of the piece. There is a story that Alois Hába criticised Schulhoff’s earlier Sonata for solo violin for not exploiting the violin’s capabilities. It is a lesson well learnt with the present work.

The final number is Susi. This short “cocktail bar” piano piece is a sheer delight. It would seem to be a transcription of a song. Written when Schulhoff was exploring Socialist Realism and implementing the diktats of Marxist ideology, it is surely decadent. But one must recall that he was also earning money as “one half of a piano duo”. Susi is full of nostalgia and, possibly, regret.

I have noted the superb performances of all this music. The outstanding liner notes include biographical information, analysis, and details of the performers. The recording reflects the vibrancy of this repertoire.

This disc makes a great introduction to the achievement of an unjustifiably less well-known composer, although in recent years his music has been making a comeback on the recording scene. This release is worth the price for the stunning performance of the Concerto alone. Everything else is a wonderful bonus. I need to hear more of Erwin Schulhoff’s music.

John France

Dominic Cheli (piano), RVC Ensemble/James Conlon
Five Pieces
Gallia Kastner (violin), Adam Millstein (violin), Cara Pogossian (viola), Ben Solomonow (cello)
Dominic Cheli (piano),
Adam Millstein (violin), Dominic Cheli (piano)
Dominic Cheli (piano)

Recording Details
6-8 May 2021, Olive Rehearsal Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
Five Pieces
14 December 2020 Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
5-6 December 2020 Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
19 March 2021, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles

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