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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Concerto for piano and small orchestra, Op.43 (1923) [18.14]
Double Concerto for flute and piano, string orchestra and two horns (1927) [19.06]
Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble (1930) [23.04] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Rondo a capriccioso, Op.129 Rage over a lost penny (arr. Schulhoff, 1940) [6.40]
Frank-Immo Zicher (piano), Jaques Zoon (flute), Leipzig String Quartet
Deutsches Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Roland Kluttig
rec. Studio Gärtnerstrasse, Berlin, 21-22 November 2007 ; Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, 28-29 November 2007 (piano, rondo) CAPRICCIO C5197 [67.04]
The music of the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died of tuberculosis in Wülzberg concentration camp, was effectively unknown until Decca released his opera Flammen as part of their valuable and innovative Entartete Musik series nearly twenty years ago. Since then his name has become one of the more familiar of those composers whose careers were so murderously cut short by the Holocaust. His music is a peculiar mixture of expressionist, neo-classical, jazz and outright romantic idioms, thrown together in a perplexing and often fascinating mixture of styles. He even studied for a period with Debussy, but after the First World War he became associated with the Dada school, and the Concerto for piano and small orchestra written in 1923 is described in the informative booklet notes by Susanne Zeise as his “last Dadaist composition.” In fact the beginning is positively minimalist in style with strong impressionist influences noticeable throughout. The title “small orchestra” serves to conceal the fact that Schulhoff employs an enormous percussion section in addition to woodwind and strings – including steamboat siren, car horn, anvil, cowbell, ratchet and ‘laughing bag’ … whatever that may be. This phantasmagoric assemblage colours the more violent sections of the score, but the constant changes of colour and texture do not disturb the onward progress of the music. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating work, and it is superbly played by Frank-Immo Zicher. One could imagine rather clearer orchestral textures, although this may well be the composer’s fault. The performance under the sympathetic Roland Kluttig certainly has plenty of bite and body.
The Double Concerto is by contrast decidedly neo-classical in style, and although it is lively and approachable it lacks the depth of engagement that one finds in the earlier concerto. This is a work which recalls the Frenchman Poulenc rather than the German Hindemith, with a lively spring to the music and plenty of rhythmic bounce. Zicher is joined here by Jaques Zoon, and both seem to thoroughly enjoy themselves. The Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble shows more the influence of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style, although this may be simply the result of the forces employed. It bubbles along infectiously, but like the Double Concerto lacks the punch and visceral excitement of the Piano Concerto despite a veiled and ominous slow movement (track 8) which hints at something deeper. Its impact is however not helped by the rather backward placing given to the string quartet, who are comprehensively overshadowed by the perky woodwind and brass playing.
As an encore we are given an arrangement by Schulhoff of Beethoven’s Rage over a lost penny written for Czech Radio but perforce first performed under a pseudonym. Schulhoff’s attempt to take Soviet citizenship in 1941 — he was a Communist as well as being Jewish — led to his internment and subsequent death. His scoring of the Beethoven is not exactly classical in outlook, sounding, with its lively brass interjections, more like Dvořák than anything earlier. Schulhoff had been introduced as an infant prodigy to the older composer. It is, however great fun, even though one might welcome rather more body to the busy violin figurations. This arrangement would make a great encore items in concerts of Czech music.
At the time of the release of Schulhoff’s Flammen, Stephen Johnson in the Daily Telegraph described the composer’s music as “wildly extravagant and over-rich, like an exotic garden that has been allowed to run riot.” It was be hard to better that description of Schulhoff’s style as demonstrated in these works. He was certainly one of the real discoveries that came out of that Entartete Musik series. Others included the similarly neglected Braunfels and the slightly better-known Schreker and Křenek whose scores however benefited from the advocacy of top-flight performers and superlative recording. It is marvellous that Capriccio have produced this disc to widen our acquaintance with Schulhoff. These readings, apart from the Beethoven arrangement, are not recording premières. There was a previous reading of the Piano Concerto on Arte Nova (there have been others since), of the Double Concerto on MDG (and a later one in 2012 conducted by Sir Neville Marriner on Chandos), and a DVD of a live performance of the Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble. There was also a disc issued in 1994 as part of the Entartete Musik series which coupled these same three concertos under the rather misleading title “Concertos alla Jazz”; the jazz elements are by far from the most noticeable element in these works. Sadly, this appears to have been withdrawn, although it remains available as a customised release from Archiv Musik — copies on Amazon are priced exorbitantly as rarity items. There is otherwise no alternative coupling of these three works on one disc. One is however puzzled by the fact that this CD seems to have taken so long to appear. As far as I can tell it does not appear to have been previously released.