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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894 – 1942)
String Quartet No. 1 (1924) [14:34]
Divertimento (1914) [22:25]
Five Pieces (1923) [13:30]
Schulhoff Quartet (Milan Setena, Michal Kostka, violins; Filip Waulin, viola; Jonas Krejci, cello)
Recorded: Domovina Studios, Prague, November-December 2003 and September 2004


Over the last years, Schulhoff’s name and music have become fairly well-known as a result of a considerable number of recordings from various sources. However, I have actually heard very little of it so far that is until I received this release presenting his output for string quartet.

The earliest piece here is the Divertimento, completed apparently in 1914 when the composer was twenty. It is cast as a suite of five very contrasted movements, of which the second Cavatine (played muted throughout) is particularly fine and unconsciously reminiscent of early Frank Bridge. The following movement, a ternary Intermezzo, too, brought Frank Bridge to mind in its outer sections - viola over pizzicatos played by the other strings. This is followed by a warmly lyrical Romance. The Divertimento opens and concludes with two fast movements, a lively Lebhaft and a rather more developed (overlong?) Rondo. This is actually the longest movement of the whole work. In this youthful piece, the music still displays a number of influences. I mentioned Bridge, but it does so unconsciously. However one could also mentioned some older Czech composers such as Suk and Janáček. Schulhoff does not slavishly imitate his models, so that this lively work clearly points towards some future, more personal achievement.

In some respects, the Five Pieces of 1923, also cast as a suite of contrasted miniatures, are comparable to the somewhat earlier Divertimento. Dance-like rhythms are much to the fore in this uncomplicated, relaxed piece but the music often nods towards the French Les Six; the piece is actually dedicated to Darius Milhaud. The various movements of this delightful piece are not without gentle irony, and are often spiced by unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists. No surprise that this work is one of Schulhoff’s best-known and best-loved pieces. I attended a lunchtime concert in Liège during which the Five Pieces were played to a mostly unknowing audience. They had probably never heard the name Schulhoff, let alone his music. In fact they ended up loving the piece on the spot. A most lovely work.

The String Quartet No.1 is in four movements with the slow movement placed last. It is preceded by three short, fast movements: an energetic Presto con fuoco, a rather ghost-like Allegretto con moto and a lively, dance-like Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca. All three are redolent of early Bartók or Kodaly for their folk-inflected dance rhythms and tunes. I often thought of Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances. This compact, but substantial work concludes with a beautiful Nocturne which for all its restraint has great expressive strength. This is a really fine piece that should definitely be heard more often.

As far as I can judge, these performances by the Schulhoff Quartet are excellent, carefully prepared, committed and fully convincing, splendidly bringing off the various facets of Schulhoff’s music. Very fine recorded sound. Recommended.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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