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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

 

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Ervín SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Funf Pittoresken (1919) [12:07]
Partita fur Klavier (1922) [19:12]
Cinq etudes de Jazz (1926) [13:21]
Hot Music – Zehn Synkopierte Etuden (1928) [12:11]
Suite dansante en jazz pour piano (1931) [17:12]
Tomáš Víšek (piano)
rec. Domovina Studios, Prague, 1993
SUPRAPHON 11 1870-1 131 [74:35]

 

Czech composers were very active in the 1920s and 1930s in their investigation of hot and dance music and Zez Confey-inspired novelty piano. Naturally they called it Jazz – the umbrella name to take in the wide diversity of peppy music they liked and absorbed – but of course it wasn’t jazz in the sense that we understand it. Rhythmic zest and unbridled vigour were two of the names of the game but like Hába and Ježek – to take two composers from very differing backgrounds and traditions – they also looked further toward other modifying influences.

In Schulhoff’s case the theory was Dada. The Dadaist Funf Pittoresken includes a proto-Cage prank of a movement full solely of rests. Some recordings dutifully include 3:03 of silence. Supraphon opts instead for ten seconds. The point is well made, however one approaches the matter. 

Tomáš Víšek proves an estimable and agile guide. His rhythm is dynamic but he certainly doesn’t stint textual clarity. His is a wholly different kind of performance of these Dadaist statements from the MD&G performance on their Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music: 1918-1938 disc where pianist Steffen Schleiermacher proves no match for the more idiomatic incision of the Czech player. Accents are sharper, textures breathe newer and more potent life, and tempi are more bracing.

The 1922 Partita carries on the Dadaist strain – one of the Funf Pittoresken had been dedicated to George Grosz – in its daring modernity. But the harmonies are a touch more adventurous and sophisticated. And when Schulhoff turns his dab hand to a Tango-Rag it actually comes out sounding more like a habanera. The linguistically cosmopolitan (if ill spelled) Tempo di Fox ŕ la Hawai is more like it, a bumptious piece of work, but elsewhere a certain harmonic elusiveness hangs over the Boston.

Schulhoff mines Ragtime as much as he does contemporary, popular dance forms in his Etudes de Jazz. His especially enlivening take on Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys – which he titles Toccata sur le Shimmy – rather sums up these naughty games. The Hot Music etudes are more overtly responsive to jazz strains and their brevity, some lasting barely three quarters of a minute, allows Schulhoff to pack a considerable punch. The Harlem Stride patterns of No. IX are vaguely reminiscent of James P Johnson, so maybe Schulhoff’s range of listening did actually go wider than one might have imagined. He was an exceptionally able pianist himself and indeed recorded some of his own pieces so one shouldn’t be surprised to hear he’d made a study of Johnson’s highly articulate recordings.

To finish with the witty and occasionally boisterous 1931 Suite dansante en jazz pour piano is a particularly good move – their waltz and fox trot vivacity leaves us on a real high.

Kathryn Stott has made her own contribution to the Schulhoff discography duplicating several of these sets of pieces but also including the First Sonata on BIS 1249. She’s an excellent guide, sometimes even peppier and faster than Víšek, and he’s certainly no slouch. Where she scores in speed Víšek more than adequately makes up in digital clarity and precision; every note is superbly placed and detonated and coloured. This disc forms part of his larger multi-volume retrospective of the complete piano music on Supraphon and is worth your closest attention.

Jonathan Woolf


 



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