Schulhoff’s Chamber Music Inventive, Exciting


SCHULHOFF: String Sextet, Op. 45 / Spectrum Concerts Berlin / Sonata No. 2 for Violin & Piano / Boris Bovtsyn, violinist; Eldar Nebolsin, pianist / Duo for Violin & Cello / Valeriy Sokolov, violinist; Jens Peter Maintz, cellist / Cinq Études de Jazz / Eldar Nebolsin, pianist / Naxos 8.573525

Erwin Schulhoff, the immensely talented but politically deviant Czech composer-pianist, has had a Renaissance of his music in the last 25 years, particularly his jazz-influenced piano works of the 1920s (see my assessment of those works in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond). Yet it was not just those works that he is now remembered for, but also his remarkably inventive chamber works. This CD combines one of his best-known jazz compositions, the Cinq Études, with his lesser-known String Sextet, Violin Sonata No. 2 and the Violin-Cello Duo.

Schulhoff’s music is often atonal but not tied to the 12-tone row; despite the astringent harmonies, he always has a melody of one sort or another going, in the manner of Bartók or Kodály, his Hungarian counterparts. Like them, he also put a great deal of feeling into his music; he was not a cold composer like Webern. Thus the String Sextet of 1924 includes a great deal of angst-ridden passages, which the musicians of Spectrum Concerts Berlin play with both infallible technical skill and tremendous energy. Perhaps even more so than the wild first movement, one can gain the measure of Schulhoff’s musical thinking from the moody yet strangely lovely second movement, “Tranquillo(Andante),” where he employs a rocking motion in the violas to settle down the conflicting feelings near the middle, continuing with the cellos playing an alternate theme while the upper strings softly flutter about, almost as ambient sounds. This is clearly the work of a great musical imagination, and I can’t imagine it being played any better than it is here.

Although Schulhoff follows the normal sequence of four movements for his sextet, he defies convention by following the very energetic Slavic “Burlesca” with another slow movement to conclude the work. What is interesting about these last two movements is that the “Burlesca” ends in such a way that it almost signals to the listener an end to the whole work, whereas the final “Molto adagio,” deeply introspective, almost sounds like a separate piece. It doesn’t just end quietly; it almost sounds like a resignation of life, a leave-taking of the temporal world.

By contrast, the Violin Sonata looks backwards to the formal structure of such sonatas, and although the themes used have a strongly Eastern European feel to them they are also based on dance rhythms. By the time one reaches the “Finale: Allegro risoluto,” in fact, it has lamost become dance-like in rhythm, charming as well as melodic.The Violin-Cello Duo, dedicated to Janáček, uses a pentatonic scale in the opening that was used for several folk songs and nursery rhymes, gradually evolving the music into further developments and themes. Yet there is no escaping the sonata’s Eastern European harmonic roots; harmonically, at least, it takes a page from Magyar culture and expands on it in his own quirky Schulhoffian way. He exploits the high ranges of both instruments in an unusual manner, sending them both into the upper stratosphere at times for an interesting effect—and, like nearly all of Schulhoff’s music, it is highly rhythmic, particularly in the fast movements. I was particularly struck by the tender lyricism of the “Andantino,” however, in which the cello takes the lead while the violin sprinkles pizzicatos.In the last movement the pattern is reversed for a bit, the violin playing the lead while the cello stoms rhythmically under it.

The Cinq Études de Jazz, like all of Schulhoff’s “jazz” pieces, are more of an intellectual reaction to popular dance music of the day than based on real jazz, which he probably never even heard. I judge this from his own proclamation that he loved to dance, thus it was peppy dance rhythm that inspired him, not the creative improvisations of any real, specific jazz master; that he never came to the U.S., as Ravel did, to hear real jazz at its source; and that the dedicatees of these five pieces were not jazz musicians. Alfred Baresel, a name little known today, was a composer of jazz-based classical works much like himself (Der Rhythmus in der Jazz, Thema mit Jazz-Variationen für Klavier and Tanzmusik) while Zez Confrey was a composer of “novelty” piano pieces, Paul Whtieman a pop bandleader who only occasionally sprinkled his bombastic arrangements with real jazz musicians, and both Robert Stolz and Eduard Künneke were operetta composers! Undoubtedly the most complex and interesting of the five pieces is the “Toccata dur le Shimmy, Kitten on the Keys de Zez Confrey.” One must get to hear the original piece before listening to this startling transformation, because you would almost not recognize the original in Schulhoff’s masterful transformation. The piano writing is all over the keyboard, far more so than in any of Confrey’s cute but rather simple-minded ragtime pieces; at times it almost sounds as if three hands are playing together. Yet even in the opening “Charleston,” we hear music that, if not fully influenced by jazz and it improvisatory spirit, was advanced and rhythmic enough to influence the course of jazz piano for those who were familiar with this music (probabkly not many, but you never know). I’m pleased to say that pianist Eldar Nebolsin fully enters the spirit of this music, playing with a wonderful elasticity and swagger.

All in all, then, an excellent recording, depite the fact that I already have two other performances of the Cinq Études in my collection!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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