Josef Schelb’s Chamber Music

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SCHELB: Piano Trio No. 2. Quartet for Violin, Horn, Cello & Piano. Piano Quintet / Daniel Gaede, Nina Karmon, vln; Hariolf Schlichtig, vla; Samuel Lutzker, cel; Oliver Triendl, pno; Radovan Vlatkovič, horn / Hänssler Classic CD H22015

Josef Schelb (1894-1977) is yet another obscure composer whose music is now being brought into the limelight. The son of a doctor, he was able to avoid much involvement in the Third Reich by living and studying in Switzerland. His music and pianism were strongly influenced by his teacher, Bernhard Stavenhagen (1862-1914), who had been a pupil of Liszt, but as time changed so too did his style. These three pieces all date from later in his career, the Piano Trio from 1954, the Quartet from 1962 and the Piano Quintet from 1970.

Although it changed, Schelb’s music never completely lost its tonal bias or its strong purely classical construction. Oddly, some of the modern harmonies used in the Piano Trio sound much more like modern French music than German or Hungarian. The notes, written by Schelb’s son Albert, makes reference to his incorporating bits of serial technique, but this music is clearly not 12-tone. Nonetheless, despite its tonal bias, the music is tonally unsettled since Schelb used what we now call “rootless” chords, and this keeps the listener engaged as the piece progresses. Schelb’s strong sense of logical construction is also present; despite moments of high energy, this is a piece that takes its time developing and does so in a linear fashion that is not too hard to follow or digest. It is, nonetheless, quite interesting, using highly varied rhythms as well as dynamics changes within the framework of each movement. There are also some surprisingly lyrical themes, such as the one played by the violin near the end of the first movement. The second movement is a quirky, almost humorous scherzo in 6/8 time in which Schelb uses the rhythm as a springboard for bouncy syncopations as the music is propelled along. Also, despite the tonal bias, his themes are just a bit hard to grasp, somewhat resembling early Shostakovich.

The third-movement “Adagio” opens with a cello theme which he develops slowly and quite interestingly, with the violin and viola playing their own counter-melodies above it while the piano explores single notes in a somewhat atonal fashion. In ways like this, Schelb was able to combine tonal and atonal elements in a way that was totally different from other composers. And once again, he uses a 6/8 rhythm for the faster episode in the midst of this movement. At the end, the music slows down and literally melts into nothingness before he embarks on the rapid concluding movement, “Animato mosso,” with its string tremolos played against an active piano theme and a slower-moving section in atonal chords. If one were to “straighten out” the harmony, however, one would find a tightly organized and quite interesting piece here which could easily sway an average audience into liking it. (Not that I don’t like it the way it is, just that I’m only too familiar with the wall that average listeners put up in their minds as soon as they hear harmonies they can’t absorb or follow easily.)

The unusual Quartet in which a French horn is added to the piano trio is clearly more advanced harmonically than the Trio; even from the outset, there is no attempt on Schelb’s part to mollify the average listener. This is music that lies in a strange valley between Hindemith and Berg, you might say, although Schelb clearly had a more purely “classical” style than even Hindemith. Here, Schelb constantly vacillates between moods as well as meters, yet does so in a way that somehow ties them all together into a coherent statement. Without knowing the scores, however, I wondered while listening if the energy I heard stemmed from the notes on the page or from the wonderful interpretation of the players on this recording; nonetheless, it is a consistently striking and interesting piece. Here, not even the top line of the music would please an average audience; there is no attempt to meet their expectations in this respect. Every single note in this piece seems the result of long thought and consideration; there is tremendous inner logic applied to what Schelb wrote, and thanks to the passionate performance style it communicates. Our horn player, Radovan Vlatkovič, has an excellent technique and a warm sound, but for me it’s a bit too “closed” a sound, lacking the bite I like to hear from a French horn, but this is consonant with the modern style of playing this instrument.

Oddly, in the third movement Schelb once again reverts to a somewhat lyrical, Romantic theme, albeit one in which every three notes you hear one placed in such a way that it is out of tonality. One thing I noted in this Quartet, however, was Schelb’s penchant for very quickly wrapping things up in each movement with a few brief notes used as a coda, without much preparation to the listener. This gave each movement the feeling having a sudden “ta-daaa!” moment at the end.

The 1970 Piano Quintet reverts, at least in the first movement, to the sort of more lyrical style one heard in the Trio; in fact, there is a secondary theme here, led by the violin, that is remarkably broad and almost tuneful in a conventional manner. The second movement, which alternates between an energetic theme with an ostinato rhythm and secondary themes in slow or medium tempi, also sounded to me like a cross between Schelb’s two different styles; it works, however, due solely to his strong underlying sense of construction. This movement also ends abruptly, but on a sudden chord and not a more conventional “ending” motif. The slow third movement is lyrical but always slightly edgy in harmony, never quite as comfortable as in the earlier piano trio. This movement ends mysteriously and suddenly, a distinct improvement on some of the movements in the earlier works.

The last movement is, again, typical of the way Schelb could combine “standard” classical form and rhythms with modern harmony and his odd, “fractured” themes, except that here, the theme seems to be a continually evolving piece not much given to juxtapositions of different motifs. It surprisingly slows down considerably towards the end, and this time Schelb constructed a properly formal and quite interesting finale.

This is an exceptionally interesting CD. The music presented here is wholly unique in style, often seamlessly combining features of older (late Romantic) and modern classical forms and harmonies, and all of the performers involved give everything they have to the venture. Go for it!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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