Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894–1942)
String Quartet No. 1 (1924) [17:05]
Five Pieces (1923) [13:57]
String Quartet No. 2 (1925) [19:40]
Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky (first violin); Evgenia Epshtein (second violin); Shuli Waterman (viola); Rachel Mercer (cello))
rec. St Anne’s Church, Toronto 11-13 March 2008
NAXOS 8.570965 [51:02]

Schulhoff’s increasing representation on disc is strongly to be welcomed. Only recently I reviewed a disc of an inflated version of the Five Pieces, bulked out for string ensemble, and wondered why anyone should want to hear it in preference to the original, feelings a rehearing of the quartet original have only intensified. This disc, in addition to presenting that work, also offers the First and Second quartets, and this adds up to a comprehensive look at the composer in the years between 1923 and ’25.

The 1924 quartet was strongly admired when it was heard at an ISCM (International Society for New Music) concert the following year. It’s a marvellous work, one that manages to fuse Bohemian and Slovakian folkloric elements with tensile Stravinsky-inspired qualities, and more besides. One hears the drones right from the first movement, and the feeling of attaca vitality is convulsive. Indeed the mixture of powerfully accented rhythms and folk-dance imperatives reminds us that Stravinsky’s Concertino for string quartet had been written only four years before and its microcosmic example was surely influential on Schulhoff. The skittering, muted elements of the Allegretto open out into malinconia grotesca and it’s for each quartet to convey that spirit with as much intensity and accuracy as possible. The rural Slovak tune in the scherzo is dynamic and hugely effective, whereas the balance of the quartet then falls on the unexpected, slow final movement.

The Aviv Quartet play this well but they don’t quite get to the heart of things. Their approach is slightly slower and less accented than others; try the eponymous Schulhoff Quartet on VMS138 whose take on that second movement is very much more arresting as regards the malinconia and who delineate the Slovak dance much more naturally and with greater immediacy. They are also a lot quicker in the finale than the Aviv, who adopt – as they do generally – a heavier and more reserved approach. The tick-tock elements of this movement are made that much more explicit, and therefore that much more alarming, in the more accented and fleeter VMS performance. The Aviv’s stasis is on the whole too much of a good thing.

There’s less to choose between them in the case of the Five Pieces but then these dance patterned and brief affairs are robust enough to withstand different approaches. The opening terse waltz never settles, and the Aviv transmit this ambivalence well. The more disquieting Alla Serenata however is definitely the Schulhoff Quartet’s; did Schulhoff have La Valse in his mind when he wrote it? The crisper and more abrasive elements of the Alla Czeca are similarly more idiomatically handled by the Schulhoff and their crisper approach is generally to be preferred here too, though the Aviv are commendable in a number of respects.

Where they are very much more on their own is in the case of the Second Quartet which hasn’t received as much attention as the two companion works, something for which one can be grateful to the Naxos foursome. It is, to be sure, a less immediately striking work. It has a theme and variations second movement, an Allegro gajo – Czech speakers will enjoy the resonance of the word - and a similarly compact four movement structure as the earlier work. However it is the more conventional. The melancholic viola statement that starts the slow Theme has, unusually for the composer, a degree of pathos attached to it in the ensuing variation. There’s a Slavic dance in variation three, with a degree of syncopated jazz as well. The rusticities of the folkloric gajo movement are even more explicit than the Alla Czeca movement in the Five Pieces. And the ruminative start of the finale picks up on the uneasy tristesse of the variations before control is re-established and the work ends on a note of renewed vitality and positivism.

Given a choice I prefer the more dryly recorded VMS performances of the Five Pieces and the First Quartet. But for newcomers to this repertoire these more warmly recorded traversals are well played and communicative, and there is the advantage of the Second Quartet. The VMS offers the 1914 Divertimento for quartet.

Jonathan Woolf

Warmly recorded traversals, well played and communicative… see Full Review