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Ervin (Erwin) SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
1-5 Divertimento for String Quartet Op.14 (1914) [21:24]
6-9 String Sextet, for two violins, two violas and two cellos (1920-24) [21:52]
10-13 Duo for violin and cello (1925) [17:08]
Kocian Quartet (Pavel Hula (first violin) tracks 1-13; Jan Ostrcil (second violin) tracks 1-9; Zbynek Padourek (viola) tracks 1-9; Vaclav Bernasek (cello) tracks 1-13; Jan Talich (viola) tracks 6-9; Evzen Rattay (cello) tracks 6-9)
Recorded March – October 1994, Domovina Studio, Prague. DDD
Chamber Works Vol. 2
SUPRAPHON 11 2167-2 131 [61:04]

 

The so-called ‘Terezin’ composers, those Jewish Czechs temporarily imprisoned by the Nazis in that cultural ghetto in the 1940s have, since the fall of Communism in 1989, established themselves as twentieth century artists to be reckoned with, despite their tragically short artistic careers. Increasingly we are becoming familiar with the names of Victor Ullman, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein.

Another Czech composer, whose output seems consistently high in quality, is Ervin Schulhoff. Born in Prague in 1894, he studied in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. In Leipzig he was taught by Max Reger, who guided him towards a neo-classical style. Schulhoff was friendly with the great pianist Artur Schnabel and is reputed to have had lessons from Claude Debussy. Schulhoff quickly gained a reputation as a formidable pianist but composition was his main objective, acknowledging Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin as significant early influences

In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s Schulhoff allied himself to the left-wing avant-garde with its Dadaist art movement. He often changed his musical styles and flirted very successfully with jazz – considered "degenerate music" by the Nazis. In 1939 he was arrested and imprisoned, firstly in Prague then in the Wulzburg concentration camp in Bavaria where he died, seemingly from tuberculosis, in August 1942.

This Supraphon release of Schulhoff Chamber Works Volume 2 contains three fascinating early works. The immediately gratifying five movement Divertimento for String Quartet op.14 was written in Cologne in the spring of 1914 and with its clean and lyrical lines could have come from the pen of Gustav Holst. The work is charming but contains an underlying sense of melancholy, a feeling that we consider is exclusive to English string music. The maturity and perception of the twenty year-old Schulhoff delights at every turn aided by the accuracy and passionate intensity of the Kocian Quartet. From the jaunty almost spiky rhythms of the opening movement Lebhaft the listener’s attention is caught. The final Rondo contains elements of ‘the hunt’, that popular 18th century subject for artists. Schulhoff fashions it as a tribute to Haydn, as successfully as Prokofiev did three years later in his ‘Classical’ Symphony. Make no mistake, the work is up there, a worthy companion to the Prokofiev; an example of timeless neo-classical writing.

The marvellous yet challenging four movement String Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos written between 1920-24 provides a stark contrast. In the Great War Schulhoff had fought in the ranks of the Austrian army on the Eastern Front. The experience provoked a major change in style. From the expressionist first movement onwards the music is muscular and resolute but never predictable. With two slow movements (the second is the rather nihilistic Finale) a post-war cynicism informs the work. The highlight of the score is the expressive and often dreamy second movement Andante which alters in mood between points 3:03-4:01. It is evocative of a Vaughan Williams string orchestra piece and the ghostly episodes with chilling tremolo accompaniment towards the conclusion are memorable. This contrasts with the irony of the short third movement Burlesca that follows, based on a Slav folk melody. The expanded Kocian Quartet show their ardent belief in this music and display great commitment in an accomplished performance.

Influential composer Paul Hindemith was one of the sextet members in this work’s 1924 premiere performance. No doubt he relished the style which could be billed as ‘Schoenberg meets Bartók’. Published posthumously in 1978, only a few playings of the score are enough to convince that this is a substantial addition to 20th century chamber music.

The remaining composition on this rewarding Schulhoff CD is the excellent Duo for Violin and Cello. Dating from 1925, the Duo is dedicated to Janáček, whom Schulhoff knew. Notably Kodaly, Gliere, Martinů and in particular Ravel have written for this rare instrumental combination. Now we discover another Duo, which I can confidently describe as a seventeen-minute gem. Violinist Pavel Hula and cellist Vaclav Bernasek breathe animated life into Schulhoff’s creation. The second movement Zingaresca that follows the rhythmical opening movement has the swagger of Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’. In the third movement Andantino a rhapsodic flow is cleverly shared between the two players. The inventive and expressive final movement Moderato alternates meaty Schoenberg-like modulations with a lyrical meandering and concludes with a witty, scampering ending; all in under four minutes.

At his untimely death Schulhoff was working on his Eighth Symphony. He was only forty-six years old. Although a tragic loss to the post-war musical world it is gratifying that Schulhoff’s ‘art’ is finally achieving the recognition that it so richly deserves. The Supraphon label have to be congratulated for championing Schulhoff. Since the mid-1990s the label has released thirteen CDs of his output; comprising symphonies, concertos, songs and much chamber music. Furthermore, labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, BIS and Koch Schwann have all dipped their toes into the Schulhoff water.

Repeated listening to these Schulhoff scores offers revelatory rewards. In fact I strongly and confidently feel that we have discovered a major twentieth century composer here. This Supraphon release of Schulhoff chamber works superbly performed and recorded cannot be recommended highly enough. It demands to be heard.

Michael Cookson

 



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