Monday 7 July 2014

Three concertos by Erwin Schulhoff in excellent performances well worth investigating on a new release from Capriccio

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) 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 later he attempted to create musical counterparts to the Berlin Dadaists as well as coming under the influence of ragtime, dance music and jazz. His works include choral and vocal works, eight symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, chamber works, instrumental works and works for piano.

There have been a number of recordings of Schulhoff’s music (see link at bottom of this blog). Now Capriccio has released a fine recording of three of his concertos.

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Roland Kluttig are joined by Frank-Immo Zichner (piano) for the Concerto for piano and small orchestra and the Concerto Doppio for flute and piano, string orchestra and two horns that also features Jaques Zoon (flute) and the Leipziger Streichquartett for the Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble.

The Molto Sostenuto of the Concerto for piano and small orchestra, Op.43, WV66 (1923) opens with a gentle upward scale and rippling flourishes that are soon underlaid by an orchestral background, quiet, mysterious and rather magical. The piano motif develops into a repeated rising and falling motif against this same background. Eventually the piano leads to a broader passage, a romantic melody, tonally free, in which the orchestra joins. Centrally the mysterious, impressionistic nature returns with a light piano motif over a veiled, shimmering orchestral sound that eventually becomes more and more dramatic, with percussion leading to a pitch before quietening to timpani strokes at the end.

The second movement, Sostenuto, opens with a quiet orchestral motif to which the piano, then clarinet add their voice. It has a gentle, halting rhythm, quite distinctive in its style of writing. There are some jazz inflections in the piano part with a fleeting little orchestral theme. Again Schulhoff creates a rather magical atmosphere. There is some lovely fluent, sensitive playing from Frank-Immo Zichner in the florid piano chords. Soon the orchestra picks up the pace a little, though retaining its veiled, dreamlike quality.

The piano re-joins in a series of flourishes before both piano and orchestra lead into the Allegro alla Jazz with a boisterous theme with the pianist playing chords that skip over the keys and the orchestra at times riotous as the music forges ahead. A xylophone is heard and a battery of percussion as Zichner plays scales up and down the keyboard, at one point almost duetting with the xylophone. Soon the music quietens with a plaintive violin melody accompanied by the piano before the orchestra rises up and pushes the music forward, with the piano and xylophone entering as the music charges to the coda.

This is a concerto that would prove highly attractive to audiences in the concert hall.

Concerto Doppio for flute and piano, string orchestra and 2 horns, WV89 (1927) has a confident orchestral opening to the Allegro moderato again very tonally free, at times sounding almost serial in construction. Very soon the flute and piano enter in a lively theme that slows to Schulhoff’s signature quiet mysterious sounds. The piano soon takes off again, joined by the flute in a joyful little melody. Centrally there is a languid section for flute and piano over a hushed orchestra that soon livens up and is pushed forward with hints of Hindemith. The music slows and quietens to a solo section for piano and flute, languid and flowing becoming increasingly florid before the orchestra re-enters to lead the movement to a close.

The orchestra opens the Andante in a subdued, rather romantic theme. The piano enters to work its own way with the theme, soon joined by the flute in this gentle, nostalgic sounding melody. Soon the piano and flute alone develop the melody before the orchestra re- joins as the sad little theme leads to a quiet coda.

Pizzicato lower strings open the Rondo. Allegro con spirit before the piano and flute join in this rhythmically lithe movement. The orchestra alone then bounces forward before quietening as the piano and flute enter, with the orchestra giving a lovely restrained accompaniment. The jolly little theme continues to rush forward shared alternately between flute, piano and orchestra. Later there is a gentler section for flute and piano, still rhythmic but gentle and slower. The orchestra soon join in this slower section before slowly increasing in tempo as the music bounces along. Rapid flute and piano passages are joined by the orchestra as the music hurtles to a terrific coda.

There is some terrific playing from Frank-Immo Zichner and Jaques Zoon in this attractive concerto.

Brass sound out to open the Allegro moderato of the Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble, W97 (1930) before the whole wind ensemble moves forward, again showing hints of Hindemith. Soon the quartet joins in a tonally shifting theme with Schulhoff’s choice of string quartet and wind ensemble certainly making for a distinctive sound. Soon the music quietens as the theme is subjected to softer but still rapid development, slowly building to more dynamic music, rhythmically insistent. The quartet is present throughout though playing alone in the later stages until the wind ensemble rejoin and lead to the coda.

The Largo brings a gentle, mellifluous wind ensemble opening. When the quartet enters they provide freer chromatic development of the theme. Slowly the music becomes more agitated and forceful, showing a passion that has been muted before. Eventually the music falls to a quieter, resigned passage though it is not without its passionate moments before the hushed coda arrives.

The quartet opens the Finale. Allegro con brio in a lively theme, soon joined by the wind ensemble as all gloom is seemingly thrust aside. There is a lovely, dissonant section for quartet accompanied by the wind ensemble and a little episode for pizzicato strings and wind interventions, brilliantly written, before a bluesy theme is heard, complete with bluesy brass, before rushing to the coda.

This unusual concerto is finely played by the Leipziger Streichquartett and wind members of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester.

As a short ‘encore’ the orchestra gives us a terrific little arrangement for orchestra, by Schulhoff, of Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio, Op.129 (‘Rage over a lost Penny’) The title on Beethoven's manuscript of the work is ‘Alla ingharese quasi un capriccio’ with the familiar subtitle ‘Rage over a Lost Penny’ later added by Anton Schindler.

This arrangement is great fun, finely orchestrated, pointing up all the characteristics of Beethoven’s piece. Arranged in 1940, it belies the circumstances under which Schulhoff was living.

This fine disc is well worth investigating. The performances are excellent and receive a fine recording. There are informative booklet notes

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