Thursday 28 March 2013

Excellent performances of neglected works by Schulhoff, Ullmann and Tausky in Gramola’s series

The Second World War brought some appalling difficulties for European composers. Whilst many, such as Hindemith, left their country, some, like Richard Strauss, controversially, stayed. Others tried to continue their work but were either banned or lost their lives in concentration camps.

Many of these composers suffered the final indignity of their works becoming unknown to the general public. Austria was the home of many of Hitler’s most important musical victims who still await re-discovery. is a centre for research into such composers and exists in order to try to redress the imbalance and restore important composers to their rightful place in musical history.

A new release from Gramola brings us works by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) and Vilem Tausky (1910-2004).


Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague into a family of Jewish-German origin. Dvořák, who was never very enthusiastic about child prodigies, encouraged the ten year old Schulhoff's earliest musical studies at the Prague Conservatory. Schulhoff later studied with Claude Debussy 1862-1918), Max Reger (1873-1916), Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), and Willi Thern (1847-1911). He won the Mendelssohn Prize twice and, after the First World War, lived in Germany until returning to Prague in 1923 where he taught at the conservatory.
In the 1930s, Schulhoff’s work was blacklisted as "degenerate" by the Nazi regime and, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he had to resort to performing under a pseudonym. In 1941, the Soviet Union approved his petition for citizenship, but he was arrested and imprisoned before he could leave Czechoslovakia. Schulhoff was deported to the Würzburg concentration camp, near Weißenburg, Bavaria where he died from tuberculosis on 18 August 1942.

Schulhoff’s early works show the influence of Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss but during his later, Dadaist phase, he composed a number of pieces with absurdist elements. His works include choral and vocal works, eight symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, chamber works, instrumental works and works for piano.

Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra with Two Horns Op.63 was written in 1927. The soloists are Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) with the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Parry.

The concerto has a striking opening for strings, in full flow, in the allegro moderato before the piano and flute enter in a light and airy theme. The music slows but soon takes off again with intricate patterns for piano and flute. Eventually the strings play the opening theme, full of forward momentum and energy. As the strings quieten the piano and flute return. A quieter section follows with the piano and flute combining together before they start off again in the lively tune. A passage for solo piano leads into a languid melody with the flute that speeds up to a livelier pace. Eventually the orchestra returns to join in the same theme only to take over from the soloists until the end.

The strings enter in a nostalgic theme for the andante. The piano then enters alone before the flute joins in the theme. Eventually the strings enter alone before the piano and flute join to further develop the theme. As the movement draws to a close the piano, flute and strings lead to a gentle conclusion with a single chord on piano.

Pizzicato strings open the allegro con spirito (rondo) with, almost immediately, the piano and flute entering in a slightly repetitious theme. The orchestra soon takes over the theme before the soloists enter, more animated. There is some lovely flute playing from Ulrike Anton in this section and some delightful playing from Russell Ryan. A slower, languid trio section for flute and piano has some lovely descending phrases. The orchestra joins in the melody before taking over the theme. The flute and piano return to take over in a livelier section before the orchestra re-joins, leading to the coda.

The two soloists, Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) are both persuasive advocates for this attractive work and the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra under Parry are on top form .

Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen, now Cieszyn, Poland, an Austrian of Jewish descent. In 1909, the Ullmann family moved to Vienna, where Viktor Ullmann studied music theory with Josef Polnauer. After the First World War he studied to be a lawyer like his father, whilst still continuing as a student of piano under Edward Steuermann (1892-1964), a student of Schoenberg. He then continued his musical education under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) who in turn recommended him to Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)  who, in 1920, appointed him repetiteur at the German Theatre in Prague.

Ullmann subsequently became musical director at Usti nad Labem (Aussig) but left his post after a year. After the Nazi’s came to power he returned to Prague where he studied composition with Alois Haba (1893-1973). In 1942 he was transported to Theresienstadt where he was soon given the task of co-organising with the Czech composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944), the so called 'permitted ' leisure activities within the ghetto. Here he produced some of the works for which he is best remembered. Ullmann died in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 18 October 1944.

His compositions up until 1942 include choral and vocal works, orchestral works including a piano concerto, chamber works and instrumental works. After his transportation to Theresienstadt his compositions included songs, his fifth, sixth and seventh piano sonatas, a third string quartet and Die Weise der Liebe und des Todes. (The Manner of Love and Death), a setting of Rilke for spoken voice and orchestra or piano.

Ullmann’s Chamber Symphony Op.46a is an arrangement for string orchestra, by Kenneth Woods, of the String Quartet No.3, Op.46, that he wrote in 1943 whilst at Theresienstadt. This alone brings a certain frisson to the work yet the opening allegro moderato has a somewhat pastoral feel, which soon develops more passionately before returning to the opening mood. It rises again, passionately, but then develops into a wistful section with cascading strings before falling to a quiet ruminative ending that goes straight into the Presto. Scherzo and trio.

Here the music changes with incisive outbursts from the violins, to which the lower strings reply before settling to a modified version of the opening theme. The outbursts and replies occur again as the movement progresses and the theme is developed, giving a wonderful demonstration of the virtuoso ECO strings. The trio opens on solo cello which is then joined by the orchestra in a lovely rich melody that leads to the Largo.

This is a thoughtful, introspective, sometimes desolate largo and, such is the tonality that one can’t tell if the music is rising or falling, lightening or darkening. It seems to be struggling with itself. In the firm opening of the Rondo-Finale the music fairly gallops along until slowing slightly in a no less compelling theme. The opening theme returns, only this time it broadens out for the coda.

The performance of this compelling work, from David Parry and the English Chamber Orchestra strings, is excellent.

Schulhoff’s Sonata for flute and piano Op.61 was composed in 1927, just before the Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra. The allegro moderato opens with a flowing theme from the piano, soon joined by flute. A slower section follows that is rather thoughtful with some lovely passages for flute. The opening tempo returns with a lovely flowing piano part, with the flute taking the main tune. The music soars to a short climax before falling to a quiet, meditative section. The livelier theme returns and speeds up with some lovely timbres from the flute. The music soon slows again with the flute playing a lovely theme to end.

The short Scherzo. Allegro giocoso has a lively animated theme that is most attractive and delightfully played by both artists. The Aria. Andante has a long breathed melody for flute with a simple accompaniment from the piano. This is such a beautiful creation, beautifully played, full of sensitivity and poise. The Rondo-Finale. Allegro molto gajo is a great little movement that skips along, full of fun. Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) give a terrific performance of this delightful work.

Vilem Tausky survived the war, dying in London in 2004 and will be fondly remembered by older followers for his regular contributions, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, to Friday Night is Music Night on the BBC Light Programme (now BBC Radio 2). Vilém Tauský was from a musical family, his Viennese mother had sung Mozart at the Vienna State Opera under Gustav Mahler, and her cousin was the operetta composer Leo Fall. Tauský studied with Leoš Janáček and later became a repetiteur at the Brno Opera. The rise of the Nazis forced him to move to France. He later volunteered for service with the Free Czech Army and eventually reached the Britain after the fall of France. He was later awarded a Czech Military Cross, followed by the Czech Order of Merit.

From 1945 to 1949, Tauský was musical director of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and, from 1951 to 1956, was music director of Welsh National Opera. He was principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra from 1956 to 1966 and regularly appeared with this orchestra on the BBC Light Programme's (now BBC Radio 2) long-running weekly show Friday Night is Music Night. Between 1966 and 1992, he was the director of opera and head of the conducting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tauský was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Tauský's compositions include a Sinfonietta for orchestra, a Ballade for cello and piano, the Fantasia da Burlesca for violin and orchestra, an oboe concerto (written for Evelyn Rothwell), a harmonica concerto (for Tommy Reilly), a Serenade for Strings and Coventry: A Meditation for Strings.

It is Tauský's Coventry – Meditation for String Orchestra that is included on this disc. Written in 1941, it reflects the horror of the destruction of that city the previous year and is an impassioned mediation with some gloriously rich string passages set against quieter, more meditative sections. There is a lovely hushed middle section, with the glorious sound of the ECO strings. The music could easily have been by an English composer, with at times some of the string sonorities reminding me of those of Vaughan Williams’ in his Tallis Fantasia. This is a lovely piece, really worth hearing.

We return to Erwin Schulhoff for the last work on this disc, his Three Pieces for String Orchestra Op.6, written in 1910 when the composer was only 16 years of age. This short Grieg inspired piece has an Elegie im Stile Edward Griegs. Allegretto, a dancing theme in a beautifully poised performance, with just a hint of Grieg, a delightful and rather rustic sounding Menuetto im alten Stil. Tempo di Menuetto menuetto and Pipa tanzt, an attractive allegro moderato, so simply constructed yet so effective.

These are excellent performances by all concerned. Though recorded at quiet a high level, the recording is exceptionally fine and clear. This worthwhile release brings some attractive works from composers who certainly deserve a higher profile than they currently have.

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