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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
String Sextet, Op.45 [22:23]
Sonata No 2 for Violin and Piano [16:21]
Duo for Violin and ‘Cello [16:24]
Cinq Etudes de jazz [13:07]
Spectrum Concerts Berlin (Boris Brovtsyn, Valeriy Sokolov (violin); Philip Dukes, Maxim Rysanov (viola); Jens Peter Maintz, Torleif Thedéen (cello); Eldar Nebolsin (piano))
rec. Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, January, 2016.
NAXOS 8.573525 [68:16]

Schulhoff was born in Prague of German Jewish parentage. His great uncle was a noted musician and this appears to be how the musically talented child was brought to the attention of no less a figure than Dvořák, who encouraged his musical studies at the Prague Conservatory - starting when he was only ten. In later studies in Germany his teachers included Max Reger, who influenced him in the direction of neo-classicism. He is also reputed to have had lessons with Debussy (although it is not clear where) and he certainly later acknowledged Debussy as an influence – alongside Strauss and Scriabin. He subsequently took the didactic approach of working in the mediums of both neo-Classicism and Expressionism, but his music also absorbed elements of jazz and the teachings of the New Viennese School (without ever fully embracing the last). After the First World War Schulhoff went to live in Germany until 1923, when he returned to Prague, becoming a member of the faculty of the Prague Conservatoire in 1929. His activities at this time were influenced by the left wing avant garde and he was a convert to Dadaism. Given the composer’s Jewishness, his growing communist sympathies and the fact that the Nazis regarded jazz as “degenerate”, Schulhoff quickly became persona non grata both in Germany and in his home country. Even before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Schulhoff had great difficulties, and he sought citizenship in the Soviet Union. Sadly, before he could escape the country, he was arrested and imprisoned – eventually dying in a concentration camp in Bavaria in August of 1942.

Alongside the music of other composers, snuffed out by the Nazis (such as Ullmann, Krasa and Haas), Schulhoff’s music has seen something of a revival in recent years and I have been looking out for new releases of it, so I was keen to hear the present disc. I was not to be disappointed. Its contents cover a considerable range of Schulhoff’s chamber music but all these works date from his middle creative phase - a four-year period between 1924 and 1927 that reflects a major change of style, possibly resulting from the composer’s experiences of army service and imprisonment during the war.

The principal work and the first on the disc is the four-movement String Sextet that the composer finally completed in 1924, having previously abandoned it in 1920 after completing only the Allegro risoluto first movement. As the booklet note says, this first movement is rather like a play in three short acts, setting out with a powerful and violent eruption of an opening that subsides into a tranquil mid-section, before rising back with accumulated energy. In some senses the quiet Andante second movement is like a mirror of the first, based on an underlying continuous accompaniment with an overlying melody that is subject to variation. In this movement the bluster is gradually dissipated, until the music becomes colourless and is extinguished. The chilling tremolo accompaniment towards the end is very memorable and I was reminded of Vaughan Williams in places. The short third movement is an ironic scherzo, marked Burlesca, which is based on a Slav folk melody employing a quintuple time signature. This movement goes very much its own way, finally speeding up to a defiant ending. Unusually the Sextet ends with a second slow movement – marked Molto Adagio. This is based on material from the first three movements but, rather than gathering this into a great summation, it takes its leave simply by sinking back into silence.

This is sometimes quite difficult music, but it is well worth the small effort of making its acquaintance. It has actually appeared several times on record befor, but I was unable to find another performance for comparison. No matter - it is given a terrific performance here by a group of string players, of whom I have only come across the two violists before.

Next we are given the Second Violin Sonata - a highly entertaining and virtuosic four-movement work, dating from 1927, with shades of Ravel and Korngold. Two Allegros frame an Andante slow movement and a Burlesca Allegretto. The last movement keeps coming back to the themes of the first movement, thereby achieving structural unity, although the themes are developed in different ways. This work has enjoyed some splendid recent recordings – notably those of Tanya Becker-Bender and Marcus Becker on Hyperion and Gidon Kremer and Oleg Maisenberg on Warner. I chose to compare the former pair with the pair on the present disc – Boris Brovtsin and Eldar Nebolsin - and the comparison was interesting. Much of the time the two very fine violinists were difficult to tell apart and the pianists are equally fine. I thought initially that, given the choice, I would probably go for the newer performance, in view of its slightly warmer recording and the slightly better pianissimo section in the slow movement. Against that the Hyperion performance is rather swifter throughout (marginally to the music’s advantage) and Becker-Bender has a slightly more interesting tonal palette and a more secure ppp high harmonic than Brovtsyn. In fact I would be delighted with either performance.

The third work is the much-recorded (24 times since the mid-1990s alone!) Duo for Violin and ‘Cello of 1925 - dedicated: “to the master, Leoš Janáček, with my respect”. Schulhoff had been fascinated by Janáček’s use of folk music and derived “speech melodies” and adopted a similar technique, especially in the first of the four movements of this work (marked “Moderato”). In the fiery “Zingaresca” second movement there are often shades of the similar Ravel sonata for the same forces – dating from 1920-22 - and I can’t help wondering if Schulhoff knew of it. As in Ravel’s work, one is often fooled into thinking that there are more performers present than just two. In the third movement Andantino the violin wanders around with a pizzicato accompaniment from the ‘cello and in the fourth movement Moderato we are more obviously back in the world of folk music. In this performance we swap violinists and Vareriy Sokolov takes over from Brovtsyn, accompanied by the ‘cellist Jens Peter Maintz, and they make a superb job of the piece.

Unlike Ravel and Milhaud, Schulhoff never travelled to the New World and his rather Eurocentric view of jazz has a number of incongruities that suggest his understanding was not always based on the real thing. His five jazz etudes are, admittedly, dedicated to such figures as Zez Confrey and Paul Whiteman, with some of whose recordings he may have been familiar. However, two (the “Chanson” and “Tango”) are also dedicated to two German operetta composers, Robert Stolz and Eduard Künnecke, probably because these two composers used, in their cabaret and revue numbers, fashionable American songs and dances of the day, which Schulhoff may have mistaken for jazz. Certainly, the kind of syncopation to be found in a tango is rather different from that of any jazz. Also, far from being improvisational, Schulhoff’s pieces are obviously through-composed. All that said, the pieces are entertainingly quirky – with similarities to one or two of the songs from Walton’s “Façade”, as well as looking forward to the style of more recent composers such as Kapustin.

Kathryn Stott provided a memorable recording of these pieces for BIS back in 2003. I have not been able to find this disc but it was very well received by Colin Clarke, the MWI reviewer at the time (review). Others found the BIS disc’s reverberant piano recording slightly problematic. No such problems here on Naxos. Eldar Nebolsin is the pianist and he is given an ideal recording to go with his magnificent playing of these sometimes very challenging pieces.

The booklet is in a small font and slightly difficult to read, but I felt that the sometimes verbose notes provided often didn’t really say very much anyway. Perhaps the essence got lost in translation. That aside this is a very fine disc (especially at bargain price) and certainly my disc of the month.

Bob Stevenson


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