SCHULHOFF: Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra.# Suite No. 3 for Left Hand. Suite Dansante en Jazz. Ironien, Suite for Piano Four Hands* / Daahoud Salim, pianist; *Nadezda Filippova, pianist; #Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; #Andrew Grams, conductor / Challenge Classics CC72730
It’s almost a bit comical how many pianists over the past dozen or so years have suddenly “discovered” the wonderful and imaginative piano music of Erwin Schulhoff ever since Kathryn Stott first unleashed it onto the world in her Bis album. This represents the take of a young (b.1990) Amsterdam-based pianist, Daahoud Salim, but of the four works presented here only the Suite Dansante de Jazz is really well known at this point.
The 1923 Piano Concerto is the real “find” on this album. A full, three-movement work written near the beginning of his “jazz”-infatuated period (I put jazz in quotes because Schulhoff never really heard real jazz, but only the watered-down ersatz stuff as played by such people as Zez Confrey and Paul Whiteman), it is a wonderful piece with little or no ragtime elements in it. Rather, it is a late-Romantic work bordering on the Bartókian in terms of its veering from a relaxed, lyrical opening theme to crashing tone clusters towards the end of the first movement. The second movement is more conventionally Romantic and much more intimate, almost static in its development and concerned more with mood than form, while the third movement—finally, titled “Allegro alla Jazz”—gives us a no-holds-barred steamroller ride with sirens and percussion. But is it jazz? In the liner notes, Salim is quoted as saying “I often wonder just how jazzily I can play this music…One significant difference between the two styles has to do with the pulse. In principle this is tighter in jazz, while the classical idiom often allows for a bit more flexibility.” But this is, to be honest, the perspective of an essentially classically-oriented musician, which Salim has been since he was a tot. Although rubato as such is indeed much more a feature of classical music than jazz, jazz rhythm—or what is generally referred to simply as “swing”—is far looser than any “flexible” classical rhythm. In my book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I described in some detail the differences in approach to a true jazz rhythm within classical pieces that have a certain amount of jazz or ragtime (in Schulhoff’s case) influence, and although I have found that certain pianists nowadays are able to play Schulhoff’s music with a much more realistic sense of jazz rhythm than the composer himself actually achieved in his scores (Caroline Weichert is one such pianist), the essence of Schulhoff’s jazz-based piano works is not so much the motor rhythms, which remain somewhat stiff, but the extremely advanced harmonic concept, which was at least 30 years ahead of its time in terms of what jazz pianists would attempt in their improvisations. (I should point out that this is a live performance of the concerto, complete with applause at the end.)
The Suite No. 3 for Left Hand was entirely new to me. Salim plays it extremely well, particularly since it is a strictly classical piece and not one of his ragtime works although it comes from 1926. The music here is, again, largely late-Romantic, imbued to some extent with the French harmonies of a Ravel or Debussy within an essentially Germanic structure. I was particularly impressed by Salim’s ability to bring out the opaque qualities of the music, particularly in the second-movement “Air” and fourth-movement “Improvisazione.” As a pianist, he has clean articulation and a fine sense of musical line, if not an individual view towards interpretation.
Considering Salim’s statements about jazz rhythm, I was particularly curious to hear how he approached the Suite Dansante en Jazz. It’s a good performance, but tends to emphasize the ragtime content of the music—appropriate for its time and place in Schulhoff’s understanding of “jazz”—than to actually make something jazzy out of it, as some other pianists have done. On the other hand, however, Salim understands the concept of “slow drag” in the rhythm of the slower sections of “Strait,” holding the beat back slightly before allowing the right hand to move on from the slightly behind-the-rhythm playing of the left. Overall, then, it is effective in places you might not expect it to be.
In Ironien, another Schulhoff work new to me, Salim is joined by pianist Nadezda Filippova who says that she “started off by deciding that the music had to sound light…The challenge lay not so much in playing the actual notes as in reflecting the ‘fun’ aspect, with the feeling that the music was sort of sprouting on the spot.” Here, the duo fully catch the ragtime craziness of Schulhoff’s concept, reveling in the outré and sometimes bizarre harmonic changes, which seem to abut one another rather than grow out of the music organically. This four-hands piano duet is clearly the highlight of this disc, a real gem both musically and in terms of the execution. The music dances across one’s mind like some magical series of improvisations conjured up especially for your delight. It is an almost magical performance.
In toto, then, a good album of Schulhoff’s music with some ups and downs, well worth seeking out if for no other reason than to hear the Ironien.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley