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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894–1942)
String Quartet No.2 (1925) [19:16]
String Quartet Op.25 (1918) [30:09]
Schulhoff Quartett
rec. Studio Domovina, Prague, May 2005 (String Quartet No.2) and March 2006 (String Quartet Op.25)
VMS 180 [49:51]

Erwin Schulhoff completed his String Quartet Op.25 in 1918 after his return from the front. It is an ambitious work in four movements, in which the still young composer seems to be flexing his muscles. The opening of the first movement Frisch und kräftig sounds as if by a much older composer, with echoes of, say, Brahms and Schumann. The ensuing development, however, moves into a slightly different sound world, sometimes recalling early Schönberg, with some rather unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists. The second movement is a warmly lyrical outpouring of great beauty and often quite moving, although still deeply rooted in tradition. The third movement Menuett is a relatively short Scherzo again looking backwards at some older models, e.g. Haydn. The final movement is a fairly developed Rondo, now often looking back at Dvorak. This overtly ambitious work is evidently quite uneven, for the composer seems to be still looking for a distinctive voice of his own. The music rather lacks personality or – at least – individuality, which is rather puzzling since the slightly earlier Divertimento Op.14 (1914) is much more interesting and musically satisfying in spite of its indebtedness to the aesthetics of Les Six (it is dedicated to Darius Milhaud). It is also rather striking that the sketchy notes accompanying this otherwise most welcome release remain embarrassingly silent about the String Quartet Op.25. Moreover, the German and English notes disagree about the tonality of the string quartet : G-dur (in German) and D major (in English). Enjoyable as it nevertheless is, this fairly early string quartet does not add much of importance to Schulhoff’s reputation, although it certainly sheds some light on the composer’s doubts at this stage of his career.
The String Quartet No.2 of 1925 is a much more personal and important work. It was written fairly quickly after the first performance of the First String Quartet (1924 - see review) and the Second Symphony. It is in four movements again, but the work as a whole is much more compact than the early string quartet. The brief first movement functions as a short dynamic introduction leading straight into the second movement, a weighty theme and variations of some substance in which the composer’s imagination is given full rein. The variations unfold seamlessly, although with some strongly contrasted character. There is even some syncopated, almost jazzy rhythms. The third movement is a lively, folk-inflected dance-like Scherzo that may reminds one of some early Bartók. The final movement is, once again, another fairly developed structure of some considerable weight. It opens with a dark-hued introduction rather brutally cut short by the sharp accents that launch the main part of the Finale, another energetic, buoyant dance. The slow music of the introduction interrupts the lively dance rhythms, although it again is cut short by the animated music that then rushes headlong to the end. Schulhoff’s Second String Quartet is a splendid piece of music, which – with its predecessor of 1924 – represents its composer at his best. They definitely deserve to become part of the repertoire of Czech string quartets along with those of Janacek and Martinu.
The Schulhoff Quartett’s well-prepared and committed readings certainly make the best of this often quite beautiful music. I am in no doubt about it: the Second String Quartet is a minor masterpiece that clearly deserves a permanent place in the repertoire. The only drawback with this release, if there must be one, is the inclusion of the early String Quartet Op.25 that, attractive as it is, definitely does not add to Schulhoff’s reputation. But, again, I for one would not be without the Second String Quartet.
Hubert Culot

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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