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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Piano Works - Vol.2
Fünf Pittoresken, op.31, WV 51 (1919) [13:25]
Piano Sonata No.2, WV 81 (1926) [16:07]
Zwei Klavierstücke, WV 119 (1936) [7:01]
Musik für Klavier in vier teilen, op.35, WV 56 (1920)
Esquisses de Jazz - Six pièces faciles pour piano, WV 90 (1927)
Caroline Weichert (piano)
rec. Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hamburg, Germany, March, August 2012
GRAND PIANO GP631 [66:05]

Schulhoff was one of many composers who took up the challenge to embrace jazz and to incorporate it into their music. He was one of the most successful at writing works that were no mere pastiches but genuinely jazz-inspired - ones that could just as easily have come from the pens of people like Scott Joplin or Billy Mayerl.
Fünf Pittoresken (Five Pictures) date from as far back as 1919 and are remarkable for their wit and experimental nature. The first two entitled Foxtrott and Ragtime ‘do exactly what it says on the tin’ and are clearly influenced by Scott Joplin whose Maple Leaf Rag had been such a hit in the early years of the twentieth century. That they were penned by a white Jewish Central European is surprising enough but they are convincing in their recreation of true jazz rhythms that one would normally ascribe solely to a black composer such as Joplin.
One must surely conclude that Schulhoff had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he ‘created’ the third of these pictures since it is entitled In futurum. It consists of 85 seconds of total silence which anticipates John Cage’s notorious 4'33" (by 33 years) in which a pianist sits at the piano with orchestra and no-one does anything for that precise length of time. Cage, a pioneer in indeterminacy in music, claimed that its motivation was an attempt to demonstrate that there are sounds to be heard in a concert hall full of audience even when no music is played. It will be different each time the ‘work’ is ‘performed’ with different ambient sounds occurring as well as audience breathing and the odd cough and even, perhaps, extraneous sounds from outside the building. Schulhoff’s ‘work’ may also ‘benefit’ from the same effect in a similar venue but with the technical expertise that comes into play in the recording studio such possibilities are lost. Before I read the booklet I thought I had received a rogue copy and contacted the distributors who tried 6 copies themselves before contacting the manufacturer and label owner who told them that it was not a fault. Note to self: when in doubt read the booklet first! ‘Normal service was resumed’ for Pictures 4 and 5 which were just as refreshingly jazzy as the first two.
The Piano Sonata No.2 is in a different league owing more to the French school of Ravel than to the jazzmen of the USA. A wonderfully restrained and understated first movement gives way to a mercurial second in scherzo form. The third is beautifully appealing and gentle “exuding an air of calm contentment” as the booklet notes so aptly put it. The sonata closes with a fourth movement that once again recalls Ravel and shows that Schulhoff was someone whose writing is of equal interest to that of the great French composer.
The two piano pieces that follow were composed in 1936 when the threat of Nazism was clear. The first is entitled Optimistic Composition while the second is entitled The Czech Workers and presents a militant stance that must surely be read as a challenge to the threat from the West. Schulhoff, as a communist, hoped that this threat would be defeated by the combined might of working people everywhere.
Schulhoff’s Musik für Klavier in vier teilen dating from 1920 takes us back to the days when the influence of jazz in his music was at its strongest. While this work is not overtly as jazzy as the Five Pictures that opened the disc its influence can be detected nevertheless. The second movement which is in the form of a lengthy set of ten variations is particularly affecting.
The last work on the disc is Esquisses de Jazz which was written in 1927. It is Schulhoff’s most well known work and though its subtitle is Six pièces faciles pour piano the word facile translates as easy since there is nothing ‘facile’ about it. These are piano pieces heavily influenced by jazz though they do not attempt to be jazz pieces per se; they are seen through a jazz prism while retaining a distinctly Schulhoff stamp of innovation. The one entitled Charleston is a particular case in point.
In recent years a lot more of Schulhoff’s works have been appearing on disc and about time too for they increasingly reveal a huge talent across a wide range of compositions that includes six completed symphonies. It is all the more sad to realise what could have been created subsequently had he not been cruelly arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Bavaria. There he is believed to have died from TB at the early age of 48.
This is the second disc of Schulhoff’s piano works to appear on the Grand Piano label both played by Caroline Weichert. Her deft touch and sympathetic approach enables the music to weave its spell. She has also released another disc of Grainger’s piano music for the label and previous releases on the Koch Schwann label show that she prefers to concentrate on lesser-known composers. I find this refreshing since there remains so much wonderful music to be discovered. We need people like her to help in that process.
This is a fascinating disc of music that is rarely heard and when as lovingly played as it is here deserves a wide listenership.
Steve Arloff