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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Music for String Quartet

String Quartet No.1 (1924) [14.34]
Divertimento for String Quartet (1914) [13.30]
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) [13.30]
Schulhoff Quartet
rec. Domovina Studios, Prague in October/November 2003 and November 2004
VMS 138 [51.07]

Schulhoff’s First String Quartet was written in 1924 and makes a real impression. It’s the most characteristic work here, because the latest, and came after the success of his earlier Five Pieces at the International Society for New Music festival in Salzburg the previous year. He had only recently returned to Prague after a prolonged stay in Dresden and marked shifts in his compositional direction were becoming increasingly apparent. It’s a concise work, no more than a quarter of an hour in length and cast in four movements. And yet what a punch it packs. Alternately stormy and fleet the broadly neo-classical argument drives over rock steady pizzicati with plenty of dance-derived material and well-controlled, terse lyricism. The nocturnal life of the second movement is explored above the viola’s melody line with the first and second fiddles skittering at the top like fireflies. Some of these sonorities are reminiscent of Janáček’s in their rapid angularity and then cantilever lyric release, but the older composer’s First Quartet, though written toward the end of 1923, wasn’t performed until October 1924; Schulhoff’s was finished in September. In terms of nervous tensile strength however there is some felt influence at least, as there is also of Bartók. A Slovak dance courses through the third movement full of folk fiddlery and the finale is the longest and most intense of the four – the slow movement. Textures here are thinned; he uses harmonics to especially descriptive and impressive effect and the ambivalent heart of this work is laid, if not bare, then at least evident, as the tick-tocking motif flickers to the end. This is a major example of twentieth century, mid European quartet writing; it has big gestures and subtle ones, plenty of right hand fireworks in terms of bowing colour and effects, and an ambiguous cumulative sense of power.

If the other two companion works are not as distinctive they are avowedly not lacking in incident and colour. The 1914 Divertimento is an example of clean-limbed neo-classicism, written in five movements. Songful, folk-flecked and with a touch of late Dvořák its larger gestures are reserved for the fourth movement Romance where the Schulhoff Quartets digs deeper into its collective vibrato for maximal expressive effect. It’s true that Schulhoff tended, from a post-war perspective, to disown his earlier works as immature but though the Rondo finale is a touch diffuse and doesn’t quite sustain its length he’d certainly served notice that his handling of a quartet was already enviably proficient and that he could spin a line melodically. The Five Pieces explore a similar arc of proficiency but are more humorous with a Viennese Waltz (that will set you thinking about Britten’s Bridge Variations of 1937) and a Tango and Tarantella. There’s more lithe colour in the little Serenata and an increasingly free Iberian warmth in the Tango Milonga, full of fillip and fun, topped by a tensile and driving Tarantella.

The recorded sound has enough warmth to bring out the fine tonal bland of the eponymous Schulhoff Quartet but is tart enough to reflect the acerbic neo-classicisms embedded along the way. The venue was the Domovina Studios – which helps. Neat and tidy notes complete a fine disc. You may have the Brandis’s recording of No.1 on Nimbus but that’s coupled with Hindemith No.4 and Weill Op.8 but I think all Schulhoff admirers will want to acquaint themselves with this one from the Schulhoff Quartet.

Jonathan Woolf

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