RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Suite for violin and piano WV18 (op.1) (1911) [19:43]
Sonata No.1 for violin and piano WV24 (op.7) (1913) [20:06]
Sonata for solo violin WV83 (1927) [11:41]
Sonata No.2 for violin and piano WV91 (1927) [15:14]
Tanja Becker-Bender (violin)
Markus Becker (piano)
rec. 3-5 April 2010, Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany
HYPERION CDA67833 [67:10]
It’s not so very long ago that the name Erwin Schulhoff was barely seen in the record catalogues, but the late 1980s and 1990s saw his rehabilitation as a marketable composer rather than just as a tragic historical statistic; a member of that unfortunate group of ‘forbidden’ composers and ultimately one of the victims of the Nazi concentration camps.
This survey of Schulhoff’s sonatas for violin and piano, the Suite and Sonata for solo violin demands comparison with volume 3 of the Czech Supraphon label’s excellent series of Schulhoff’s chamber music, that withviolinistIvan Zenatý and pianist Josef Hála. This appears to be unavailable at the moment but is still worth seeking out if you can find a copy. These players perform with great panache and in a typically resonant acoustic, Zenatý’s violin sound darker than Tanja Becker-Bender’s more silvery tones, but otherwise comparably attuned to Schulhoff’s idiom and brilliant technical craftsmanship. There are other recordings of these pieces scattered through numerous recitals, but I couldn’t find any others which gather them in their entirety.
These works divide themselves into two pairs in two periods, early and mature. The Suite is Schulhoff’s first work in an extended form, exploring a richly romantic style even though the five movements are given antique dance names. There are elements of pastiche, and a revue of influences ranging from that of his teacher Max Reger, perhaps a bit of César Franck in the first and a whiff of Wagner in the final movements. Contrasting lightness in movements such as the Gavotte cast back to earlier styles, but filtered through a clear prism of originality and inventiveness. The players on this Hyperion disc give wit and character to these movements, as well as appropriate seriousness and weight of expression in this most tasty of first courses.
The Sonata No.1 was also written while Schulhoff was still a student at the age of nineteen, but already shows a considerable advance from the Suite in terms of its more adventurous approach to harmony. In the intervening period Schulhoff had discovered the music of Debussy, and little shafts of that composer’s harmonic colours shine through frequently in this piece. The late romantic atmosphere remains, but the strength of the musical ideas has toughened up, giving this piece greater endurance and a lasting appeal. The first two movements are invested with the greatest artistic energy, and the piece fades out somewhat towards the end as a result, but the argument made for its status as a repertoire piece is made flawlessly by Becker-Bender/Becker.
The Sonata for solo violin brings us to 1927, and sees Erwin Schulhoff inhabiting the feverish creative hotpot of inter-war Paris. White-hot intensity in the opening Allegro con fuoco is the kind of thing Tanja Becker-Bender clearly relishes, but her expressive and technically superb double-stopping in the second movement is also a joy to behold. The same goes for the witty slides of the Scherzo, and the folk-influenced final Allegro risoluto is a real tour-de-force. Richly recorded, this is a tremendous vehicle for Becker-Bender’s Guarneri instrument and a deeply satisfying performance.
1926-28 saw some of Schulhoff’s best forays into the jazz style in his solo piano pieces, but the solo Sonata is far removed from these influences and there are only a very few moments where the popular idiom can be said to creep into the Sonata No.2. This is by no means a jazz-inspired piece, and Nigel Simeone’s thorough booklet notes cite Béla Bartòk as one of the main driving forces behind the work’s genesis. A comparable feel for melodic gesture and harmonic colour are clearly to be heard, as well as a folk-like flavour in some of the violin treatment. Schulhoff’s own voice refuses to be categorised, but there is no denying the forceful nature of the music in this piece, and his influences aren’t use as a crutch to prop up a lack of personal creative energy. Instead these striking outside forces seem to be gathered from the ether and channelled into new energies and brand new music.
In terms of performance the duo Becker-Bender/Becker does have the edge on that of Zenatý/Hála. The dynamic swings and responsiveness to Schulhoff’s vivid and ceaselessly lively inventiveness are done to a higher degree of intensity in this recording, another layer peeled from the gauze of history and a greater depths and insights into and beyond the notes gained and to be relished. Presented chronologically, the impact of the Sonata No.2 is gritty and demanding: a yet further development on the folk influences which arise in the finale of the solo Sonata, and an entire river full of stepping-stones away from the youthful works with which we started. Tanja Becker-Bender and Markus Bender’s synergy as a duo is superb and the overall results on such a stunning recording - including the inspired use of Paul Klee for the cover art - can only be reported in superlatives.
Can only be described in superlatives.