Schulhoff’s Strange, Moody Violin Music

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SCHULHOFF: Suite for Violin & Piano. Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Violin & Piano. Sonata for Solo Violin / Bruno Monteiro, violinist; João Paulo Santos, pianist / Brilliant Classics BRI95324

My initial interest in the music of Erwin Schulhoff—and still my strongest connection to him—was through his jazz-influenced piano works of the 1920s and early ‘30s. Those are wildly innovative and interesting works which, though not really based on real jazz but on peppy dance music of the era, have a tremendous vitality and fascination. I’ve reviewed several of his more conventional classical works and have found some to be quite interesting and creative, others not so much.

Here we have the Czech composer’s complete works for violin: a Suite and two Sonatas for violin and piano, and one solo violin Sonata. Listening to the opening movement of the first of these produced some strange emotions in me.The music, though tonal, is very fluid harmonically, consitantly slithering (mostly downward) chromatically. This kind of odd harmonic movement made me feel uneasy and uncertain; somehow, it put me in mind of that scene from the 1950s sci-fi film Invaders from Mars where the young boy suddenly feels the ground beneath his feet giving way and is sucked into the Martians’ underground settlement. The second movement, a Gavotte, is a little more cheerful at first but eventually reaches a passage where the violin sustains a low-range D for what seems like a full chorus while the tempo slows down and the piano then plays its own descending-chromatic passage. The liner notes tell us that after 20 aborted attempts at composition, this is the work that Schulhoff finally chose as his Op. 1. The notes also tell us that it “exhibits eigtheeenth century influence…reminiscent of the classical structure of its genre.” Well, that may be so in terms of form, but I think annotator Ana Carvalho is missing the forest for the trees. The odd harmonic movement is by far the overriding quality of this suite, regardless of how much 18th-century form it emulates, and that is what strikes the listener and stays with him or her.

Of course, the emotional impact of any piece of music is often contingent upon the interpretation of the performers, and to a certain extent it is pianist Santos who projects the stronger emotion in this suite. Violinist Monteiro, though possessing a fine tone and technique, seems to be content with riding the top line without much in terms of personal involvement, at least not until he reaches the fourth-movement Walzer where he injects some rhythmic buoyancy in the way he bounces the music along. And yes, once again it is the downward chromatic movement of the harmony that arrests our attention.

Interestingly, the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 sounds like a continuation of the Suite, but only because of the similarity of key. In terms of harmony this sonata, written two years later, already shows (if you will pardon my speaking generally about it) a shift from ambiguous harmony to, well, harmony concrète. No longer is Schulhoff slithering around the tonality, a man in search of grounding; he has settled on writing in a bitonal form, borrowed in part from Claude Debussy (with whom he was briefly in contact while composing it) but also looking forward to the bolder harmonic experiments to come in the next decade and a half. Where this music resembles the Suite is in its melodic and rhythmic treatment; these are still rooted in, so to speak, a Ravel-like format, exhibiting a lyrical flow of the top line even as the harmonies become increasingly bolder. There are also, particularly in the second movement (marked Tranquillo) a large number of portamento slides, harking back to a style of violin playing exemplified by Fritz Kreisler and Bronislaw Huberman, neither of which would have played a sonata this modern-sounding. Even the last movement, a peppy Rondo, has the kind of rhythmic feel (and more portamento slides) that would have attracted such violinists but the constantly shifting modern harmonies might have thrown them off the scent.

I found it very interesting to compare these performances to the ones by violinist David Delgado and pianist Stefan Schmidt on a 2013 release by Gramola of this exact same material. The opening movement of the Suite, for instance, is taken at exactly the same tempo as Monteiro and Santos, but the articulation, accents and phrasing are entirely different. Delgado plays his violin in a musically angular manner, perhaps even a bit more cleanly than Monteiro, but cleanliness of bow attack does not translate into any particular depth of feeling. I did sense a greater feeling from Schmidt in the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1, but once again the phrasing is angular and not flowing. This is the kind of playing that, had I never heard the Monteiro recording, I would probably have given a thumbs-up to, but as soon as you switch from the Gramola release to this new one you immediately feel the difference. Schmidt and Delgado may have more intensity at times, but it doesn’t penetrate much beyond surface excitement. It’s a bit like comparing Isaac Stern to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: a bit more fullness of sound, but little of the from-the-heart feeling of the latter.

The Sonata for solo violin, finished in 1927 and published in 1928, replaces the jazz influence of his piano works of the period with the influence of Czech folk music. Here Schulhoff calls for an entirely different technique, rougher around the edges like the folk-influenced violin music of Bartók and Kodály. I noticed that, in terms of both musical layout and technical requirements, this sonata had very little in common with J.S. Bach’s famous solo sonatas and partitas. There is some counterpoint, but not to the extent that there is in Bach, only enough to urge the music along here and there, particularly in the first movement, very little in the second. That being said, Monteiro has a little bit of difficulty fully getting into the rough-and-ready requirements of the music (listen to Joseph Szigeti play Bartók for an example of how it’s done), but he is, again, far better at it than Schmidt, who apparently didn’t even try to sound much like a folk violinist. My lone complaint is that the third and fourth movements sounded a bit too much alike to me.

With the second Violin-Piano Sonata, we find ourselves immersed in fully mature Scholhoff. Here is music that not only speaks his own language, the advanced harmonies now subjugated to the melodic line, meaning that as the melody moves along the harmonic base changes to fit each note and phrase, but also sounds much more assertive. In this work I found less difference in the performance of Delgado and Schmidt on the one hand and Santos-Monteiro on the other as the angular melody and assertive rhythmic attacks sounded good played by both—and just maybe, in this work, the fuller tone of Schmidt worked to his advantage. Nonetheless, Monteiro does not hold back; he attacks this music with relish, fully understanding its idiom and purpose.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse of a different side of Schulhoff. In the end, I wasn’t so sure how I really felt about this music in toto; yes, it was interesting, but was it substantive enough to warrant repeated listening? That’s a question each listener has to answer for him or herself. I can only tell you my reaction; I can’t predict yours; but it’s certainly music worth hearing at least once.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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