It’s Schulhoff Time Again!

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SCHULHOFF: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5. Suite, Op. 37 / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orch.; James Conlon, cond / Double Concerto for Flute & Piano. Piano Concerto No. 2. Concerto for String Quartet & Wind Ensemble. BEETHOVEN: Rage Over a Lost Penny (orch. Schulhoff) / Jacques Zoon, fl; Frank-Immo Zichner, pno; Leipzig String Qrt; Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin; Roland Kluttig, cond / SCHULHOFF: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. 5 Pieces. String Quartet in G, Op. 25. String Sextet / Petersen Qrt; Rainer Johannes Kimstedt, vla; Michael Sanderling, cel / Violin Sonata. Duo for Violin & Cello / Conrad Muck, vln; Hans-Jakob Eschenburg, cel / Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3. 5 Burlesken. 5 Grotesken. Ironies.* 5Pittoresken / Margarete Babinsky, *Maria Lettberg, pno / Jazz Improvisations: Dein Kokettes Lächeln; Capricciolette; Butterfly; Tango; Melody Waltz; A Musical Flip; Mitternachtsgespenster; Humoreska / Margarete Babinsky, Andreas Wykydal, pno / Capriccio C7297

schulhoff stottDespite a few previous releases of his chamber music, when little-known pianist Kathryn Stott issued her CD of Erwin Schulhoff’s “jazz”-influenced piano music in 2003 (Hot Music, Bis 1249), the composer’s name was barely known among classical music lovers, but that disc created a strong following which led to further releases by other artists, not just piano music but also symphonies, concerti and chamber music. From such acorns do mighty oaks grow.

Here is a massive 6-CD set of Schulhoff’s music on Capriccio. The first disc, of Symphonies 2 & 5 along with other orchestral music conducted by James Conlon, came out on Capriccio 67080 in 2004. Discs 3 and 4 with the String Quartet and Sextet along with the violin-piano works came out in 1995 on Capriccio 10539, the piano works played by Margarete Babinsky were originally issued as a 2-CD set on Phoenix Edition 181 in 2009, and I myself own all of the material on CD 2 of his concerti conducted by Roland Kluttig on Capriccio 5197, issued in 2014. This is the first time all of these have been available as a set.

But of course the real question is, How good are these performances? Not having heard the Conlon disc before, I admit that I had my doubts. I happened to see Conlon’s Cincinnati debut as a conductor back in the early 1980s in a performance of the Dvořák Requiem with the May Festival Orchestra and Chorus. My impression then, and my impression throughout his career, was of someone who had a firm grasp of both the score and complete control of the orchestra, producing beautiful sonorities, but also of one who produced a glassy tone and gave very little in the way of emotional commitment or drive. Since Schulhoff’s music is often hyper-emotional, I had my reservations.

As it turned out, Conlon’s performance of the Second Symphony did lack some of the manic energy that one expects in his scores, but it is at least a lively performance, bouncy and forward-moving, so at least he had evolved that far by 2004, but as usual for Conlon the orchestral sound is somewhat icy. The whimsical and ironic third-movement “Scherzo alla Jazz” is played with no jazz rhythm whatsoever although it is clearly implied. Yet, as I pointed out in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, Schulhoff had no first-hand experience with real jazz. To him, any peppy, syncopated dance music of the time was “jazz,” two of his favorite artists being novelty pianist Zez Confrey (composer of Kitten on the Keys, on which Schulhoff wrote a series of quite wild variations) and pop bandleader Paul Whiteman (the latter also a favorite of Arnold Schoenberg). Schulhoff’s real contribution to jazz, as we shall hear in some of the piano pieces, was the use of extended chord positions (ninths, elevenths and thirteenths) which were first used in jazz by pianist Art Tatum and then by alto saxist Charlie Parker, both of whom influenced all jazz to come during the 1940s.

Even so, Conlon can’t even produce a real ragtime feel in the eponymous piece for orchestra in the Suite. Apparently, his musical upbringing was as corny as Kansas in August, as the old song says, but he does capture the whimsical playfulness of the “Valse Boston” and “Tango” which follow. Oddly enough, he does capture a ragtime feel in “Shimmy,” although real “shimmy” music of the 1920s was looser than this. “Step” sounds more like a Nazi goosestep than anything jazzy, with heavy percussion playing the entire piece, and the concluding “Jazz” sounds more like a tango. But it is fun music in its own right.

The Fifth Symphony is one of Schulhoff’s most powerful and frightening, evoking the domination of the Nazis in Germany. By and large, Conlon and the Bavarian Radio Symphony play this symphony well if not quite with the same manic fervor as Vladimír Valék’s recording with the Symphony Orchestra of Prague Radio.

The concerto performances on CD 2 were as good as I remembered them from the single release. None of this music is jazz-inflected, although the flute and piano play a highly syncopated duet in their first entrance in the opening concerto. Modes and whole tones often intrude in the harmonic line, adding interest to the music as it goes along. There is also some jazz inflection in the third-movement “Rondo: Allegro con spirito,” and this is played well by flautist Zoon and pianist Zichner. Strange harmonies also pervade in the opening of the Piano Concerto No. 2, as odd a piece as Schulhoff ever wrote. The Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Ensemble is a bit more tonal, albeit modal, but also a lot of fun to listen to, as is his orchestration of Beethoven’s “rondo capriccioso,” Rage Over a Lost Penny.

In some of the chamber works, this set competes against the Naxos release by Spectrum Concerts Berlin (the String Sextet, Violin Sonata No. 2 and Duo for Violin and Cello), but I found these performances just as lively and energetic if not more so. The String Quartet No. 1, which I had not heard before, is a very strange work, consisting of short movements within each movement and alternating between straightforward passages and those that sound a little drunken and off-kilter, particularly in the second movement (“Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca”). Schulhoff almost sounds as if he were chomping at the bit to throw in as much oddball music into this quartet as he possibly could. After the fairly offbeat 5 Pieces for String Quartet, we get the Quartet No. 2. This is a somewhat more formal piece structurally, not as wacky as the first quartet, but equally energetic, almost frantic in its rhythm. The second movement is played, in the middle, with a very strong ragtime beat. Only the unnumbered String Quartet in G actually sounds like a somewhat conventional quartet, the third movement in particular being a charming Viennese waltz.

By contrast, the String Sextet sounds much more like a piece by Schoenberg or Webern, with no real grounded key and edgy atonal figures jarring against one another, but it, too, is original and gripping music. Schulhoff’s rhythms are stronger and “springier” than those of the dodecaphonic composers, more like the music of Hindemith or Bartók. Surprisingly, the sonata for solo violin also has the same edginess despite a surprisingly lovely (though bitonal) second movement. The Duo for Violin and Cello inhabits much of the same harmonic world, but perhaps because of the presence of the latter instrument, the melodic line is more elegant, almost (but not quite) tuneful at first, but becoming edgy again by the end of the first movement. In the fast second-movement “Zingaresca,” the cello almost sounds like a ticked-off bullfrog.

With the next disc, we are plunged into the world of Schulhoff’s piano music, starting with the energetic, almost manic-sounding first piano sonata, and as much as I liked Kathryn Stott’s reading, Margarete Babinsky is better at capturing a quasi-jazz quality in the music—or, to be more accurate, adding a jazz sensibility to this music that was ostensibly based on jazz but wasn’t really. What is it that she does that makes so much of a difference? She “holds back” slightly on the lead notes of beats 1 and 3 of each measure, which creates a “springiniess” to the second and fourth beats, which then sound ever-so-slightly shorter. Because Schulhoff didn’t know real jazz, he didn’t understand this concept, thus his written scores, unlike those of composer with jazz experience such as Charles Mingus, Nikolai Kapustin and Daniel Schnyder, do not have any “breathing room” or space between the notes. The performing artist must thus create his or her own space via these slight rhythmic alterations, which a performer with jazz experience understands while a performer with no jazz experience will not. I tip my hat to Babinsky; she knows what she’s doing, thus she makes each of these Schulhoff pieces come alive with at least a touch of real jazz rhythm: note, for instance, the third movement of the first sonata, marked “Allegro moderato grotesco,” in which she gives us a little taste of James P. Johnson or Fats Waller in her handling of the syncopation. I’m rather sad that she didn’t choose to record the famous 5 Études de Jazz as part of this series.

The 5 Burlesken, though syncopated, are not jazz-based but rather related to Czech folk music; even so, Babinsky rips through them in fine fashion. The third piano sonata, unlike the first, has some surprising moments of tenderness, and when it is rhythmic it reminds you (oddly enough) of Oriental rather than Eastern European music. This Oriental (or Asian) feeling also runs through the second movement, reminding me of Koechlin’s The Persian Hours except with occasional rhythmically upbeat interludes. The third movement, by contrast, is a rapid moto perpetuo marked “Allegro molto,” with the pianist playing constantly-moving serrated figures. Although the fourth movement is marked “Marcia funebre,” it bears no resemblance in mood or style to the similarly-titled works of Beethoven and Chopin, but rather sounds like a fairly glib, medium-tempo piece with modern harmonies. Apparently, Schulhoff even had a different concept of a funeral march from everyone else! And this sonata has a fifth movement, “Finale retrospettivo,” which again reverts to Asian rhythms and quasi-Asian modes.

Oddly for Schulhoff, the 5 Grotesken aren’t all grotesque; in fact, the second piece is a quirky waltz, and the third, marked “Schnell und leicht,” is a charming if bitonal sort of dance tune. In this recording, the Ironies are played by two pianists. Babinsky is joined here by Maria Lettberg, and the two play as one pianist so it’s difficult for me to say who is playing what, but it’s a good performance nonetheless. Only No. 6, “Tempo di Fox,” is dance-oriented, more of a ragtime than a jazz tune, albeit harmonically complex, and the duo play it very well.

By contrast, all of the Pittoresken (Pictures) are pretty much dance music, with Babinsky clearly in her element. They almost sound like silent movie music with Bartókian harmonies thrown in for fun. Oddly, “Ragtime” is one of the slowest pieces, does not follow the classic tri-theme pattern of ragtime, and has more of a loping beat than a raggy one; it resembles, to some extent, John Alden Carpenter’s ballet music for Krazy Kat (I’ll bet you haven’t heard that one in a while!). “In futurum” is clearly the oddest piece in this suite or on this set, consisting of soft ambient sounds as the pianist lightly taps his or her instrument and also lightly runs their fingers over a few of the strings. So Schulhoff was able to accurately predict the satiric music of John Cage as well. The last piece, “Maxixe,” also bears no resemblance whatsoever to the jazz version of the same title, but is rather a slow, quirky piece with a stuttering rhythm.

We end our excursion into the music of Schulhoff with eight of his Jazz Improvisations, and these are for the most part very much ‘20s-styled ragtime-jazz, played here with a deft touch by Babinsky and fellow-pianist Andreas Wykydal. The first of these, “Dein Kokettes Lächeln,” could easily give George Gershwin a run for his money, although it is more imaginative in places, and “Capricciolette” is, at least as played here by Babinsky and Wykydal, a jazz piece that in form and displacement of the beats far ahead of its time, playing 3 against 4 in its opening strain before switching to a swinging stride-style theme in the middle. Butterfly is given a James P. Johnson sort of treatment. The tango isn’t very jazzy in itself (Schulhoff was forever confusing waltzes and tangos with jazz music), but the duo give it a nice swagger. Next is, of course, the waltz, a pretty if somewhat undistinguished piece, but “A Musical Flip” has a nice relaxed swing about it. “Mitternachtsgespenster” has a nice relaxed blues feel about it, like the blues from Alexandre Tansman’s Transatlantic Suite. The duo gives the final piece, “Humoreska,” a nice ragtime-jazz swagger.

Except for my slight reservations regarding Conlon’s performance of the First Symphony, this is an outstanding set and a good introduction to Schulhoff’s unique music and widely diverse styles. Well done!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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