Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Concerto for piano and orchestra, Op. 11 (1913/14)
Der Bürger als Edelmann, concert suite for piano, seven winds & percussion (1926)
Michael Rische (piano)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Israel Yinon (Concerto)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Gerd Albrecht (Der Bürger)
rec. 1998, Kölner Philharmonie, Köln (Concerto); 1999 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin (Der Bürger)

This release from last year presents a pair of works by Erwin Schulhoff written twelve years apart: a piano concerto and a concert suite of incidental music. 

Austro-Czech composer and pianist Schulhoff was born in 1894 in Prague to a German-speaking Jewish family. Owing to his Jewish heritage and communist politics, Schulhoff was a prime target for the Nazi regime. His works were classed as ‘degenerate’, blacklisted and almost entirely expunged. His life was cut short when he perished aged forty-eight during captivity in the Wülzburg fortress concentration camp, in Weißenburg, Bavaria.

Schulhoff still remains in the background and his work deserves a wider circulation. A personal favourite reference book on 20th century composers by Mark Morris, published in 1996, doesn’t even mention him, yet, the tide is turning, as in recent decades an increasing number of recordings of his music has become available.

He wrote three piano concertos and Michael Rische is here playing Op. 11, the earliest, a neo-classical work composed in 1913-14 quite soon after his studies with Debussy. Rarely encountered on concert programmes, this is an eclectic work in which I hear characteristics of Schulhoff’s contemporaries Richard Strauss, Scriabin and Bartók.

Rische gives a hugely compelling performance of the concerto accompanied by noteworthy playing from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Israel Yinon. In the opening movement marked Bewegt. Allegro moderato the ebullient and upbeat piano drives through the heavier, more serious orchestral accompaniment. Short in length, the central movement Langsam und getragen has the piano involved in an earnest dialogue with a modest group of woodwind and brass. A brief and intriguing viola solo seems to come from nowhere. Marked Lustig und leicht the Rondo. Finale, of blithe and vivid character, flanks a ruminative central section. 

An updated version of Molière’s French play Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) was planned for the National Theatre, Prague. Lully’s original music wasn’t deemed suitable and in 1926 Schulhoff secured the commission for a new score. At the premiere of the play’s revival his incidental music, known by the German title Der Bürger als Edelmann, was emphatically acclaimed. A couple of years later, he worked the score into a concert suite for piano, seven winds and percussion.

This forthright, yet inventive, concert suite of character studies is divided into four movements: an Ouverture, Danse de tailleurs, Le banquetOtaguf alla foxtrott andthe Grand ballet du finale. The concluding movement is subdivided into several distinct dance rhythms: Danse des parvenus, Danse des seladines, Danse des brigantes, Danse des bergères, Danse des philosophes, Danse des ballerines, Danse des artistes, Danse des critiques, Danse des boxeurs and Le knockout. With this 1999 performance it feels as if conductor Gerd Albrecht is displaying the concert suite in the manner of a celebratory, carnival parade. The group of players from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin provide a sparkling performance, both brightly coloured and ebullient. One senses that Michael Rische is entirely engaged with his piano part, making a valuable contribution to the success of the performance.    

Both these recordings were made for radio broadcast. This Rische/Yinonaccount of the Piano Concerto, Op. 11 has been well recorded in the Philharmonie, Köln. I have no information regarding any previous release of this recording. Albrecht’s account of Der Bürger als Edelmann is a satisfying recording in the greatly admired acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin. I notice that it was released in 2003 by the Orfeo label’s Musica Rediviva series (c/w Landschaften, Op. 26; Menschheit, Op. 28). In the accompanying booklet, Hänssler provides a helpful and readable essay written by Michael Rische himself.

Presenting two of Schulhoff’s finest works, both well performed and recorded, this Hänssler album would be a good place for newcomers to start getting to know his music.  

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf (August 2022) ~ Leslie Wright (August 2022)

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