A New Album of Schulhoff’s Music

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SCHULHOFF: Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra / Dominic Cheli, pno; RVC Ensemble; James Conlon, cond / 5 Pieces for String Quartet / Gallia Kastner, Adam Millstein, vln; Cara Pogossian, vla; Ben Solomonow, cel / Suite for Piano Left Hand. Susi / Dominic Cheli, pno / Violin Sonata No. 2 / Millstein, vln; Cheli, pno / Delos DE3566

One of the marketing tools used by CD companies to sell recordings of music by German-Jewish composers of the interwar era is to use the phrase “Enträrte Musik,” which was used by the Nazis to denigrate the majority of the new-school modern music of their time, which they generally detested. There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that this phrase was applied even to those composers who were of 100% Aryan blood, such as Paul Hnidemith and Alban Berg, thus it was NOT a designation reserved for Jewish composers. The second is that it ignores a value judgment of their music on its own terms, assuming that all of the German Jews so banned were equally outstanding as composers, which is simply not true. Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schulhoff were original and outstanding composers; others, like Hanns Eisler, were pretty awful.

In Schulhoff’s case, his ethnicity was further compromised by the fact that he was an openly avowed Communist; he even set the Communist Manifesto to music. I ignore this aspect of him because I admire the non-Communist scores he wrote, but let’s face it, Communism is one of the most evil political systems yet created by the mind of man. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why every country that goes Communist has hordes of their citizens risking life and limb to get the hell out of them.

But to return to Schulhoff, one of the reasons why he fascinated me in particular is that he was one of the few “new” German composers of his time who embraced the early, ragtime-inspired forms of jazz and incorporated them into many of his piano scores. Another reason is simply that he was an excellent and highly original composer. Once you become acclimated to his style, you find yourself addicted. He always surprises you, he is never boring, yet at the same time his musical structures are sound.

This CD opens with the Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra, written in 1923. Since this ends with a movement entitled “Allegro alla jazz,” you know you’re going to get a taste of his interpretation of this music. For the non-jazz listener, I should perhaps explain that the reason Schulhoff (and at least a dozen other composers) didn’t really understand real jazz was that their exposure to it was through the recordings of ersatz “jazz” orchestras like Paul Whiteman’s, whose recordings were circulated throughout the world, whereas the real deal recorded by Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson and Bix Beiderbecke (excluding the very few Whiteman discs on which Beiderbecke was prominently featured) were not nearly as well known. To cite but one example, Schulhoff thought that Zez Confrey’s novelty piano piece Kitten on the Keys was real jazz while being wholly ignorant of Hines or James P. Johnson. Another is that he thought that a short-lived dance craze from the late ragtime era called the “Boston,” which died out in the U.S. by 1922, was a really hot dance step. Apparently, he never heard any recordings of Johnson’s Charleston or Ray Henderson’s Black Bottom, which were REAL dance crazes of the “Jazz Age.”

The Concerto opens with a piano cadenza which sounds a bit like a fantasia; it relies heavily on arpeggios using open chords and a modal sound while the orchestral winds play exotic, almost Middle Eastern-sounding motifs behind it. Dominic Cheli’s playing is light and fluid; he almost sounds like a French pianist, if you know what I mean. As usual, Conlon conducts with exquisite orchestral detail and colors if not always with a strong sense of rhythm, but this first movement in particular comes off very well because of its opaque colors and exotic nature. This is an unusually “French”-sounding movement for Schulhoff, so it all fits together nicely, even when the music becomes much louder and all the cats join in. At one point, the music comes to a dead stop, following which we get the slow “Sostenuto” movement, which uses a different theme yet in some ways seems like a continuation of the first. Yet even here, Schulhoff pulls the rug out from under us by giving most of the movement over to the piano a cappella, playing an even more extended fantasia based on the same exotic-sounding modes. When the orchestra returns, we now hear the clarinets playing the same strange arpeggios that the piano used in the opening.

Unfortunately, neither Chelinor Conlon give a strong enough syncopation to the “Allegro alla jazz”; they classicalize it just a bit more than it should be. The result is a performance that is certainly lively enough but more like syncopated classical music than, for instance, the hot ragtime orchestras of Jim Europe or Wilbur Sweatman. (But I doubt that most Europeans knew what Europe’s and Sweatman’s bands sounded like, either.) In the midst of this movement is a much slower passage featuring a lovely violin solo. I almost wished the violinist would have listened to Joe Venuti ro find out what a jazz violinist should sound like. But compared with other recordings, which also generally de-emphasize the jazz elements, it’s still a good reading.

Interestingly, the ad hoc string quartet on this album gives the first of the 5 Pieces for Strring Quartet a jazzier feel than Cheli and Conlon did in the concerto—and this in itself is remarkable because this first piece is a waltz! But yes, indeed, they syncopate the heck out of the music, and it works much better than you’d ever suspect. As the suite continues, I noted that they also syncopated the other pieces: “Alla serenata,” Alla czeca,” “Alla tango milonga” and “Alla tarantella.” I’ve not encountered any of these musicians on a recording before, but they clearly “get” what Schulhoff intended in these scores, even if the music just gives hints to most classical players. I’m certain that Schulhoff himself would have loved these performances.

The Suite for Piano Left Hand is again somewhat French-sounding and again based on what sounds like the Dorian mode, thus Cheli’s performance of it is wholly appropriate and in fact quite good. After the simpler, more lyrical second movement, the third is a “Zingara” played with a spiky (but not, here, a jazzy) rhythm. The fourth is an “Improvisazione,” both delicate and mysterious, while the “Finale” is a sort of tango. Since Schulhoff often conflated tangos with jazz, it should be played with a jazzier rhythm than that which Cheli gives it here, but on its own terms his performance is quite good.

Considering the rhythmic proclivities of Cheli on the one hand and the string players on the other, I was very curious to hear the Violin Sonata No. 2 to see how they managed it. I’m happy to report that Millstein’s looser, more syncopated rhythmic feel helps loosen up Cheli a bit more, at least enough that he does not get in the violinist’s way, thus this is a very satisfying performance.

The concluding piece on this album, Susi, was written in 1937, clearly a fox trot in what was then the new swing style. Cheli comes closer here than in some of the other pieces, but just sounds a shade less loose than he really should.

Overall, however, this is a fine album showing the various sides of Schulhoff’s diverse musical personality. Who says that once a composer reaches their maturity that all their music should have the same sound?

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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