Duos for Violin & Cello
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)

Duo for violin and cello no.1 H157 [12:43]
Reinhard SÜSS (b.1961)
Five movements for violin and cello [18:42]
Gideon KLEIN (1919-1945)
Duo for violin and cello [9:32]
Richard DÜNSER (b.1959)
Ode to the rain for violin and cello [11:04]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Duo for violin and cello [17:03]
Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Divertimento for violin and cello op. 37/1 [6:57]
Eufonia Duo Vienna (Stephan Achenbach (violin); Shamita Achenbach-König (cello))
rec. June 2010, Beethovensaal, Vienna, Austria

As the liner-notes say the combination of violin and cello is an unusual one. The Eufonia Duo has commissioned some leading Austrian composers to add to the small, though technically demanding repertoire and two of those works are included on this disc. The liner-notes also say that because of the gap that exists between the high notes of the violin and the low notes of the cello the cello is often called upon to “fill this space”. Unfortunately I’m not sufficiently musically competent to either understand or comment on that statement but the music on this disc doesn’t appear to involve any compensatory elements as far as my ear and emotional response is concerned. Each instrument seems to me to be perfectly balanced and equally weighted in carrying the music forward. If I’m correct then it is a tribute to the composers who achieved a seemingly difficult and challenging task.

The first work on the disc - Martinů’s Duo - is a beautiful piece. It was written in a few days, to be performed in Paris in March 1927 by members of the Novak quartet who were there to perform his 2nd String Quartet which they had premiered in Prague two years previously. It has all the hallmarks of mature Martinů with endless invention. There’s no sign that the unusual combination presented any musical problems to him - what did? The first of the two movements opens with a short violin introduction soon followed by the cello in sharing the tune. The two instruments spiral up and down the scale exploring then improvising on the theme before settling down around 2 ½ minutes in to reestablish a calm atmosphere in which to end the movement. Martinů had as his aim to ‘render to some extent his affirmation of a quiet and happy life’ and this work certainly exemplifies that aim. The second movement opens with a merry folk-inspired tune which is given the unique Martinů treatment. Any lover of his music will immediately recognize his particular musical voice; the music is then treated to jazzy syncopated rhythms in which his joie de vivre is clearly evident. About 4 minutes in the cello is left on its own to plough a wonderfully lyrical path before the violin returns to relieve its partner and share in the headlong rush to the satisfying conclusion. In doing so we are returned to the opening theme of the movement.

Reinhard Süss is one of the contemporary Austrian composers the Eufonia Duo apporached. However, as a presenter on UK’s Radio 3 recently said, before you find something else to do, there is no need to be afraid as this composer is musically very ‘user friendly’. The Five Movements are absolutely gorgeous and will certainly have me seeking out more Süss. The opening movement begins with an achingly poignant tune during which the violin soars to the upper registers while the cello stays rooted well below. Then a section of fast themes is alternated by calm sections. The second movement is marked by a memorable songlike theme whilst the third is one of great calm followed by an extremely lively scherzo which is restless in its intensity. This is punctuated by much plucking of strings before the final movement returns to a structure that resembles the opening movement. The writing finely balanced and makes for a very pleasing whole.

Gideon Klein is one of the tragic losses music has suffered at the hands of madmen. He was murdered in an Auschwitz sub-camp in 1945 at the age of barely 26. His promise is evident in his every work and he was prolific for such a young man. Works of his are still being discovered; the Duo was found along with a number of other works as late as 1990! His music is more ‘contemporary’ in style than the previous work on the disc, which was by a composer born 16 years after Klein was killed. Nevertheless Klein’s music is accessible and rewards study - showing what a promising composer he was. The opening movement of the two is extremely lyrical full of colour and beauty. This is followed by the all too brief unfinished Lento that is cut off mid-phrase in a poignant echo of Klein’s tragically short and unfulfilled life.

Richard Dünser is the other ‘contemporary’ Austrian composer who has dedicated works for this Duo. His Ode to the rain is inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda and dates only from 2009. The section which is the specific inspiration reads: … the night burst.… and then the rain of my childhood returned … sombre violin … I walked with torn shoes.… there you take off the mask of your beauty … in the night, with my eyes closed, I have been waiting.…that you will sing solely for my ear.…O sad rain sing, sing.…sing on the roofs and the leaves, sing in the icy wind, sing in my heart…. The music is really lovely - full of gorgeous harmonies. It’s a perfect musical picture of the poetry that inspired it; Neruda would have been very pleased indeed.

Erwin Schulhoff sadly shared the same fate as Gideon Klein but even earlier in the war, in 1942, dying of tuberculosis in Wülzburg Castle Internment Camp. He was already a fully established and hugely successful composer at the time of his arrest. His Duo shows him at the height of his musical powers. The work is superb and thrilling and puts the players through their paces. Listen to the second movement, the Zingaresca, which is fast, furious and huge fun, full of folk-like rhythms. It makes you smile. The Andantino brings things back to a state of calm and contains some truly lush themes of great beauty. The leitmotifs in the last movement mirror those in the opening and are used to connect the two making a satisfying circular musical tour. Schulhoff’s final diary entry for March 1941 reads ‘A true artist must never be afraid of the auto-da-fe. The creative impulse must be rooted in an innermost conviction and the idea must be so powerful to be fully convincing. The outward success is not what immediately stimulates the development of the creative mind; this is just ‘some added spice’ which one should by all means try to forgo. It is the struggle which eventually gives importance to the creative artist, partly the fight against his own human weakness and partly also the fight against the rotten behavior of humanity’. With opinions such as that it is hardly surprising that the Nazis had him arrested on the very day they launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union where, having applied for citizenship, he was preparing to emigrate.

The final work on this fascinating and very listenable disc is the Divertimento op. 37/1 by Ernst Toch who was born in Austria and was living in Berlin in 1933. He could see that as a Jew he had to leave. He emigrated to the USA where he spent the rest of his life, during which time he picked a couple of Academy Award nominations for film music he’d written for Hollywood. The work here is again a hugely successful piece. It’s inventive, exciting, tonally explorative and supremely musical. Once again the fact that this work is ‘contemporary’ doesn’t mean it isn’t tuneful, just as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht cannot be said to be anything but. That said, the two instruments are, as always in the works on this disc, continually technically challenged and the two players come through with flying colours. It is a lovely work with which to complete the disc. They all are and it must have been difficult to choose the order to place them.

The Eufonia Duo comprises two superb instrumentalists. There can be little music that tests a player’s abilities more than the music on this disc. One could be forgiven for thinking that, maybe, music for such a combination would be unlikely to hold one’s attention for over an hour. They’d be wrong and, for me at least, I found the whole experience extremely rewarding – 76 minutes of aurally sublime and fascinating music.

Steve Arloff

76 minutes of aurally sublime and fascinating music.