Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Solo Piano Works
CD 1
Piano Sonata No.1 (1924) [15:20]
Five Grotesques Op.21 (1917) [20:31]
Five Burlesques Op.23 (1918) [20:19]
Piano Sonata No.3 (1927) [17:46]
CD 2
Five Pittoresken Op.31 (1919) [18:11]
Six Ironies Op.34 (1920) [12:15] ¹
Jazz Improvisations (1926) [27:05] ²
Margarete Babinsky (piano) with;
Maria Lettberg (piano) ¹
Andreas Wykydal (piano) ²
rec. October 2008, Deutschlandradio, Siemensvilla
PHOENIX EDITION 181 [74:32 + 58:15]

This is a useful compilation of Schulhoff’s piano works but it’s very much not the last word – not by any means. On the plus side there is some considerable ground covered and we get the necessarily speculative Jazz Improvisations of 1926, of which more later. On the debit side some of the performances are devitalised.

The First Sonata was dedicated, of all people, to Thomas Mann. As to this performance, it can certainly be taken ‘otherwise’ as Klemperer used to observe of Bruno Walter’s Mahler. The first movement clusters are well done, and the somewhat Regerian slow movement gets its due, in its staunchly chromatic way. The pugnaciously rollicking finale is the most arresting movement. In all, though, my recommendation is Kathryn Stott’s more energising performance (BISCD1249) – apart from the sonata there is no overlap between her single CD and this two disc set.

The Grotesques should be etched deeper and sharper than they are here – the performance of the last is the best of the five. A similar sense of under-characterisation afflicts the Burlesques. The lightning reactions of the fourth (Leicht und flüchtig) is probably the best interpreted. The Third Sonata ends the first disc, and its dreamlike quasi-improvisatory is adeptly caught as is the dark-hued funeral march that permeates the fourth movement.

In the Pittoresken she comes up against Tomáš Víšek on Supraphon (11 1870-2 131) by whom she is, to be frank, outclassed. She is discursive, losing the rhythm in the first, lumpy and unconvincing in the second, where there is no Ragtime taste at all, and heavy booted all the way through. Enough said, I’m afraid. You have to turn to the Czech player to have any inkling of how these pieces should go. In the Ironies Margarete Babinsky is joined by Maria Lettberg. The final Foxtrot should have far more brio than here but the presence of Lettberg is beneficial, one feels. The Jazz Improvisations see her teamed with Andreas Wykydal. Schulhoff performed jazz piano duets on Prague radio broadcasts from 1930 until 1935. He composed one part and the second pianist improvised over and around it. Two of the most popular – Butterfly, and Midnight Spooks - are amongst the eight performed here. The former is decidedly Ježek-inspired – a sort of cut price Bugatti Step – but Musical Flips sounds far too busy in this attempt at emulating the heady days of Schulhoff and his colleague Oldrich Leftus. These ingenious pieces are fun but I’d query the harmonies in the Blues movement [CD 2 tr. 18] which sound to me to be far too advanced for the period.

It’s all a bit so-so, and sadly reflective of the set as a whole.

Jonathan Woolf