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Six to Seven
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
String Sextet (1924) [22:21]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
(1945) arr. Rudolf Leopold [27:00]
Hyperion Ensemble (Annelie Gahl and Gunde Jäch-Micko (violins), Firmian Lermer and Jörg Steinkrauß (violas), Detlef Mielke and Astrid Sulz (cellos), Martin Heinze (double bass on Strauss)
rec. St Konrad, Abersee, Austria, 1997

The two works on this disc are two composer’s responses to the experience of war, one by Schulhoff who was profoundly affected by his time as a serving soldier during the First World War. He ended up in an Italian POW Camp. His life was cruelly cut short during the Second World War. The other is by Strauss who watched as his beloved country fell into ruins through allied bombardment and with it his world.
Schulhoff’s work sounds very modern for something written almost ninety years ago; the first movement is the most expressionist which makes the second slow movement sound dreamy with an austere beauty that is quite irresistible. The third short movement marked Burlesca. Allegro molto con spirito and based on a Slav folk melody is delicious; a welcome relief from the general bleakness of the work as a whole. The final movement Molto adagio reminds the listener what drove Schulhoff to compose the work. Its suitably dark nature rounds off a powerful musical statement on war. Schulhoff was friends with Janaček and, interestingly, just as Paul Hindemith was the violinist in the first performance abroad of Janaček’s sonata for violin and piano in 1923, he was also a member of the sextet that first performed Schulhoff’s work the following year. I was surprised to learn that the sextet was only published for the first time in 1978 for there is no doubt after hearing it that it is a major contribution to the corpus of 20th century chamber music. Repeated hearings will make it a favourite with any lover of such repertoire. The Hyperion Ensemble which came together precisely to present the two works on this disc for a festival concert in 1996, and has since stayed together, are clearly committed performers of this work and have done Schulhoff good service here.
Reading something of Richard Strauss reveals him as a pathetic character far from the willing tool of the Nazis as has often been the impression. Rather he was a true believer in the nature of art and the German contribution to its history. Choosing to stay after Hitler took power resulted in difficult choices when trying to steer a path through those turbulent times. His efforts to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren led to compromises that, perhaps, in other circumstances he would not have made. He was resolute in his determination to continue to perform the music of banned composers such as Mahler and Mendelssohn. In 1933 he wrote in his private notebook “I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence - the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent”. Strauss had hoped that since Hitler, an ardent lover of Wagner, had admired Strauss’s opera Salome that he would support and champion German culture. Goebbels on the other hand had no time for Strauss’s music and wrote that once “we have our own music ... we shall no further need of this decadent neurotic”. There is plenty more evidence of his hatred for the regime not least the entry in his diary following the end of the war that reads “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom”.
Strauss’s Metamorphosen was written in 1945 amid the blackest days of the war during which he witnessed the destruction of every major opera house. This music is the starkest representation of the grief he must have felt at what seemed to him to be the destruction of German culture itself. Originally composed as a work for septet it was Paul Sacher that great “artpreneur” who commissioned it to be turned into a work for 23 strings. Here in a version by Rudolf Leopold we can hear it as originally intended. The greatest of Strauss’s gifts is his incredible imagination when it comes to orchestration. His use of strings is almost unparalleled in the music of the twentieth century and this work is proof of that. Gorgeous harmonies abound with sounds that reach upwards toward the heavens all tinged with sad reflections on the folly of Man and its pernicious results.
Strauss wrote in 1947 that "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer." I and millions of others would beg to differ and indeed his reputation as one of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century is assured. This work is among those that caused that assessment and deservedly so. The performance here is sumptuous but with Strauss’s uncanny ability to write fabulous melodies that could hardly be otherwise.
This disc presents two very different reactions to the experience of war, the earlier one more advanced in experimental terms, the later more conventionally “classical” but both equally effective and affecting.
Steve Arloff