The phrase ‘Lost Generation’ is one which
seems to crop up often disingenuously and quite regularly. It certainly
applies to the musicians and composers of Czech / German / Jewish families
who happened to have had the misfortune to be anywhere near the influence
of the Nazis in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Over the last twenty
years or so their forgotten and neglected music has been recorded, sometimes
several times over. Its very particular and complex style and sound-world
is often based on the folk rhythms and the modal scales of Moravia or
on Jewish ancestry. This is mixed with Prokofiev-type dissonance, Jazz
and even a touch of neo-classicism.
In the case of Erwin Schulhoff, the first of these figures that I got
to know and a man who died of pneumonia in Auschwitz, all of these styles
are captured with a highly chromatic late-romantic passion. I remember
the impression made on me by his Sextet of 1924 coupled at that time
with works by a composer of a similar stylistic bent, Bohuslav Martinu
Schulhoff’s Double Concerto
, scored for flute, piano with
two horns and string orchestra is more in the neo-classical line, being
in three movements with flanking Allegros. I found a Czech recording
in my collection on the Panton label (81 1308-2) and compared the two.
I preferred the drive of the 1980 Czech performance under Zdenek Kosler
in the third movement and the slower more reflective speed of their
middle movement but that recording is a little boxy. It is a piece typical
of its period and lacks the profundity of the above mentioned Sextet
or the Third Symphony. Still, it has a considerable charm and has many
fascinating textures gained by the unique scoring. It was, quite understandably,
a popular piece for a while and was played in several European centres
and taken up by the leading conductors of the day. Anton, Ryan and Parry
make an excellent team and the English Chamber Orchestra clearly enjoy
this rarely played work.
The CD includes two other works by Schulhoff both on a smaller scale.
The four movement Flute Sonata
is generally light-weight but
interesting for the players. The spirit of Debussy hangs vaguely over
the first and third movements. The general mood speaks of the essence
of Les Six. The finale, which is an Allegro Vivace Rondo, could easily
be by Poulenc or Auric. All areas of the flute’s range are explored
and as in the Concerto, Ulrike Anton’s tone is consistent, strongly
graded and clearly projected. It’s especially rich and beautiful
in the very lowest range.
If you think, when you hear the first movement of Schulhoff’s
early Three Pieces for String Orchestra
, that you have
walked into Grieg’s Holberg Suite then you would be quite right.
It is subtitled ‘Elegy in the style of Grieg’. It’s
rather light-hearted for an Elegy, but never mind. In fact all Three
Pieces are very pleasing and tuneful - easy listening. The second one
is a Minuetto and Trio in an ‘olden style’. Dance influence
is a special feature of Schulhoff’s music and the lively third
is another ternary structure marked ‘Pipa tanzt’.
is relatively well known name. He emigrated
from the then Czechoslovakia and arrived in England to escape the pogroms.
He was also a conductor and indeed Janacek’s last pupil. His Coventry-Meditation
for String Orchestra
was written soon after the bombing of Coventry.
It is a beautiful, almost pastoral work, deeply atmospheric and rewarding
despite its subject matter. Tauský had experienced urban bombs
in London. The performance brings out every moment of melancholy and
pity in the harmonies. It also seems that he knew Schulhoff, Gideon
Klein and Pavel Haas very well but never spoke of them.
Before I listened to Victor Ullmann’s Chamber Symphony
I heard again the original version of the Third String Quartet as recorded
by the Hawthorn Quartet (Channel Classics CCS 1691). It’s a fine
version. I found myself wondering why Kenneth Woods or anyone else would
want to turn it into a version for String orchestra. Several of Ullmann’s
pieces exist in various adaptations - the Piano Sonata No. 7, for example,
was developed into a Symphony. However having heard this new version
I was moved and impressed. The first movement, at least under Parry’s
direction, comes out, slower and in a much more romantic way and loses
its tough edge. The Presto second movement is much more aggressive.
The desolate Largo, based on a twelve tone passage had, surprisingly,
much more forward propulsion. It works out one minute faster than the
Hawthorns version. The finale after a short fugue re-quotes the opening,
which in the quartet version sounds hopelessly sad and desperate. In
this chamber version sounds it like triumph overcoming the most awful
horror and difficulties. As Woods remarks in his notes “If ever
a person wrote truly courageous music, it was surely Ullmann and this
is surely the music.”
Too many words both on the net and in print have been devoted to the
demise of Schulhoff, Ullmann and their tragic contemporaries and not
enough on simply discussing and playing the music. These booklet notes
totally exemplify the problem. Kenneth Woods’ extensive and lengthy
essay gives the socio-political background associated with the composers
and their country and is interesting in itself. However it manages to
say next to nothing about the music. In addition there is also an equally
long essay by the recording’s sponsors pithily entitled ‘Reflections
on the History of Bank Austria during the National Socialist Era’.
This, amongst other things, talks about the rescuing of the art plundered
by the Nazis.
See also reviews by Rob