Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Double Concerto, for flute, piano and strings with two horns, op.63 (1927) [19:57]
Sonata for flute and piano, op.61 (1927) [13:39]
Three Pieces, for strings, op.6 [9:39]
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet no.3, op.46 (1943), arr. Kenneth Woods for string orchestra (1999) [13:20]
Vilém TAUSKÝ (1910-2004)
Coventry - Meditation, for strings (1941) [8:14]
Ulrike Anton (flute)
Russell Ryan (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra/David Parry
rec. St Jude's, Hampstead, London, 19-21 March 2012. DDD
GRAMOLA 98964 [64:34]
This is the latest volume, with more to follow, in Gramola's 'exil.arte' series. 'Exil.arte' (styled without capitals) is an organization which "operates as a centre for the reception, preservation and research of Austrian composers, performers, musical academics and thinkers who, during the years of the 'Third Reich' were branded as 'degenerate', [and the] assessment and restitution of such a multi-faceted cultural inheritance'. A worthy enterprise indeed, and one which has already produced valuable results, from a CD of Hans Gál's chamber works for flute and violin (Gramola 98896), to a double-disc collection of lieder by Walter Arlen - a Jew who emigrated in 1939 to America, where he still lives, now in his nineties (98946-47).
The appearance of this disc times perfectly with the revelations, both shocking and yet unsurprising, concerning the Vienna Philharmonic's involvement with the Nazi regime during and after the War. More insidious than the fact that half the orchestra were members of the NSPD, the driving out of 13 musicians who were, like Schulhoff, Ullmann and Tauský, Jewish by origin or association, and five of whom died in concentration camps, reverberates through the pages of booklet and score alike on this disc.
Viktor Ullmann was murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Before he was moved there he wrote much music at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, including his Third String Quartet. There seems no compelling reason to arrange it for string orchestra as Kenneth Woods has done, but if Rudolf Barshai can make such an effective job of transcribing Shostakovich's quartets, then Woods is surely justified. Unfortunately, his notes on Ullmann discuss only the masterliness of the original Quartet, with no insight into his motivation for transcription. However, in the Arranger's Note in the preface to the score, Woods explains how, inspired by Barshai and Mahler transcriptions he had conducted, he set about the process: "I could easily imagine that the drama, violence and intensity of the Ullmann would work wonderfully with string orchestra. Likewise, Ullmann's lyricism and coloristic genius come across equally as well in the expanded ensemble as in the original version. Of course, the most creative aspect of such an arrangement is the creation of a double bass part. [...] I was inspired by the capabilities of many of my bassist colleagues and friends, whose virtuosity concedes nothing to the finest violinists or pianists." Unfortunately, the textural and tonal brilliance of Woods' version is modified by the slightly thin sound of Gramola's engineering - a surprise perhaps, given the recording location and production team involved.
This marginally lossy quality does not however noticeably affect Schulhoff's strings-free Flute Sonata. An introspective third movement aside, it is a jaunty, neo-classical affair, lightly modernist in outlook but audience-friendly in practice. The finale has a particularly memorable tune. Schulhoff's Three Pieces for string orchestra are an early work, and the harmonic language is instantly accessible, oddly English-sounding - or indeed Scandinavian, in the first-movement à la Grieg - and far from Schulhoff's looming Dadaist phase. Neither essential nor quintessential Schulhoff, however, and again the audio depth is compromised. Less affected is Schulhoff's Double Concerto which in scoring terms is something of a curio, but typical of the composer, the full ambit of whose musical imagination, miserably curtailed in a concentration camp, still remains largely unappreciated by posterity.
Happily, Vilém Tauský was not one of the lost generation. On the contrary, he lived a full life, some odd and very English highlights of which included involvement in the British brass band scene, a CBE, and regular appearances leading the BBC Concert Orchestra on what is today the world's longest-running live music programme on radio, 'Friday Night is Music Night'. His Coventry Meditation, in memory of those who died and suffered in the merciless blitzkrieg inflicted on the titular city in 1940, brings the recording to an appropriately elegiac, though never maudlin, end.
Unlike the audio, performances are of an unstintingly high quality. Flautist Ulrike Anton, Austria's only presence on the disc, merits a special mention for her virtuosic yet characterful accounts of Schulhoff's sonata and concerto. Besides her appearance on the above-mentioned Gál disc, she has also recorded Haydn's complete flute trios for Gramola (98878). According to its 'biography', the ECO has a discography amounting to a record-breaking 857 recordings, so in one respect this is just another day at the office. Yet its reputation is hard-earned, and there is never any hint that the orchestra is not fully conversant with even the obscurest of scores. David Parry's own reputation has chiefly come from the opera world, but he similarly shows no lack of familiarity with this kind of repertoire.
The German-English booklet notes are excellent: long essays on Schulhoff and Tauský by Michael Haas - once of Decca's celebrated 'Entartete Musik' series - and on Ullmann by Kenneth Woods, all in pleasingly idiomatic translations. As if that were not enough, there is an even longer article by Ulrike Zimmerl with the intriguing title 'Reflections on the History of Bank Austria during the National Socialist Era'. This is in fact a frank account of the role of named capitalist financial institutions in the sustenance of Nazism, and makes for politically charged reading. Finally, with regard to a different kind of lost generation, the ECO's CV ends with an exhortation for readers to "become a fan of ECO on Facebook and follow us on Twitter."
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The latest volume in Gramola's fine 'exil.arte' series.
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