There is little that is more exciting to the
long time music aficionado than the discovery of a new composer
or some interesting heretofore unheard music. It is even more
exciting when said listener had dismissed said composer for
years on the unfounded pretext that he probably wouldn’t like
his music anyway. Happy me then when I took the plunge and played
this release from Chandos, a company never to be accused of
peddling junk, and found myself falling in love with the contents.
Erwin Schulhoff who was born to wealthy parents
in Prague, lived a tragically short life. He flourished in Germany
during the heady years of the Weimar Republic, only to be carted
off to a concentration camp during the horrors of the Nazi era,
where he died of tuberculosis in 1941. He was composing his
eighth symphony at the time.
Schulhoff was a modernist who fell under the
influence of many of the trendy styles of the 1920s, including
Dadaism and Jazz. He and Arnold Schoenberg were acquainted and
there was for a time a regular correspondence between the two
composers, but they were to take very different paths both in
life and art. He is represented here by two compact chamber
works. Both demonstrate his natural gift for melody, and move
at a breezy pace. Unlike many composers, who signal the ends
of movements with some sort of grand gesture, Schulhoff often
says what he needs to say and abruptly stops, leaving the listener
wondering what happened. His writing is quite contrapuntal,
and his accompaniments often tend toward a busy moto perpetuo
leaving the pianist with handfuls of notes requiring some
pretty fleet finger work.
Unlike Schoenberg, Schulhoff embraced tonality.
His music is sparkling with crunchy, jazzy dissonances, but
there is a jaunty tunefulness also present. The performances
here are first rate, and one wonders why they took so long to
get onto the market. Fenwick Smith has technique to burn and
tosses off some very sophisticated and busy writing with deft
agility. There is plenty of spirit in his playing and Sally
Pinkas in the 1927 sonata provides some outstanding partnership
in a part that must be a bit of a knuckle buster.
Felix Greissle, who made this transcription of
Schoenberg’s quintet at the composer’s suggestion, was a student
and eventually son-in-law of the composer. Schoenberg wanted
every note of his original score to be represented in the reduction.
Proving to be impossible to play, Schoenberg finally consented
to having certain notes written in small type so that there
would at least be a visual representation of his original intent.
This is a massive piece, and it is dense in it
its scoring. However - and I confess here to being very hard
to win over where twelve-tone music is concerned - I was amazed
to find myself drawn to the complexities of the sounds I was
hearing. It is as if Schoenberg made a conscious and even Herculean
effort to make his new-ish system of composition able to be
lyrical, in spite of its disdain for traditional harmony. The
end result is a piece of immaculate and fastidious construction,
a work that upon repeated listening bears more and more fruit.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Hodgkinson bring out every
facet of this incredibly complicated score. They find the drama,
the pathos and the sadness in the music, and yes, even moments
of delicate lyricism. It must have been a beast to learn, especially
for the pianist, but one would never know from listening to
this performance that either artist ever broke a sweat..
Will this piece be suitable for every listener?
Probably not, but the splendid Schulhoff works make this disc
worth the money, even if they are sadly brief! Nonetheless,
there are great rewards to be found here amongst all the complexity.
I for one found a new appreciation for dodecaphony, in spite
of my previous misgivings. That in the process I found such
an attractive composer as Schulhoff was all the greater reward.