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CD Review

Ervín Schulhoff

Orchestral Works

  • Ogelala "Ballettmysterium," Op. 53
  • Suite, Op. 37
  • Symphony #2 *
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Oliver von Dohnányi
* Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marcello Viotti
Arte Nova 74321 27802 2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Masterpiece and chips.

The Czech composer Ervín Schulhoff died in 1942 in the Wülzburg concentration camp. A Communist and a Jew, thus doubly doomed, he had been caught trying to flee to the East. Not many have even heard his music, much less know it – a comparable figure in that regard might be Goldschmidt – but almost all of it is musical and well-written. The Czech government in the stereo LP era recorded his double concerto for flute and piano and his cantata setting the Communist Manifesto.

Schulhoff's compositional career shares many concerns with his compatriot Martinů's. Both had a "fling" with jazz – or what passed for it in the European cabaret orchestras of the 1920s – deriving much of their approach from works like Stravinsky's Ragtime, Tango, and L'Histoire du soldat. From there, both moved eventually to Stravinskian neo-classicism. In addition, Schulhoff went through a phase of Stravinskian "barbarism," which Martinů avoided, just as Martinů began with Debussy, to whom Schulhoff gave a miss (except as filtered through Stravinsky), learning from Reger instead. Unlike most European composers of the 1920s, Schulhoff knew real jazz intimately. He had caught the bug early and amassed one of the largest private jazz record collections on the continent. Consequently, it's all the more curious that his use of jazz in classical works differs not a whit from, say, Martinů's. Again, Stravinsky, not Armstrong or Morton, is the major influence, which probably testifies to the strength of Stravinsky's example on almost every composer at the time. Schulhoff's Suite, Op. 37 (1922), is a case in point. The various movements – "Ragtime," "Valse Boston," "Tango," "Shimmy," "Step," and "Jazz" – draw on the same sets of dances, even titles, as a work like Martinů's Revue de Cuisine. Indeed, if one played "drop-the-needle" on Schulhoff's "Shimmy" and Martinů's (from the ballet Who Is the Most Powerful in the World?, also 1922), one would find oneself hard-pressed to figure out which belonged to which. In this case, Martinů did it earlier, and Stravinsky did it first.

Still, Schulhoff entertains well on his own. I've written elsewhere that I consider him above all a "musical" composer, like Mozart or Schubert. That is, I've never heard anything downright ugly, and I get no sense of struggle from brain to paper, as in (say) Beethoven or Brahms. The music is "finished" and lean and never goes on longer than the material warrants. It may well turn out that Schulhoff's music could have benefitted from such a struggle. Every note seems effortless and perfectly in place. Ambition – the sense of daring and excitement – largely absents itself from his music, at least what I've heard so far. On the other hand, one also encounters moments of great fantasy and wit. To me, the best movements of the Suite (the earliest work recorded here), "Tango" and "Step," make a lot out of a little. The "Tango" comes across as a kind of sultry nocturne and uses no more than three real parts. The "B" section – for winds, strings (keeping the beat), and discreet, tiny peals from the glockenspiel – conjures up dancers seen and heard from a distance. Throughout the movement, Schulhoff varies his scoring with great imagination, without ever raising his voice. It's a study in wonderfully delicate textures. "Step" plays around with untuned percussion, though not in a particularly deep way, as in the works of Varèse or Bill Russell. It's mostly fun.

Ogelala takes off from Stravinsky's Firebird and Le sacre du printemps. Indeed, its plot is Le sacre Goes to Mexico – with Aztec sacrifice a prominent feature. One hears little riffs from both ballets – mainly orchestral ideas – in Schulhoff's piece, although Schulhoff scores more economically than Stravinsky in those two works. The movements divide up into "dance" and "narrative." The dance movements sound so close to Le sacre and the narrative movements to Firebird that Stravinsky probably should have gotten some of the royalties. Indeed, this is the most derivative score from Schulhoff I've heard. One does hear moments of great originality which make the borrowings all the more surprising. My favorite movement, the "Waffentanz" (weapons dance), uses Stravinskian tricks, but the tricks work. Furthermore, Schulhoff manages to get in a lot of his own ideas, particularly in his use of percussion carrying the burden of accompaniment. Overall, the ballet doesn't convince me, but there's some very interesting stuff indeed along the way.

The CD's major work, the Symphony #2, shows both a greater assurance and a greater willingness to search for something personal, within the general stylistic framework of neoclassicism. But it's not Stravinsky's neo-classicism, or Martinů's for that matter. The first movement strikes veins of both wit and genuine feeling – something akin to the last movement of Weill's second symphony, but without Weill's acid. Schulhoff's artistic nature radiates sunshine rather than irony. Even the slow movement is meditative in a direct rather than oblique way, and moments of light keep wanting to break through. Schulhoff sings affectingly and in his own way. The scherzo "alla Jazz" shows its jazz most clearly in a slow bluesy contrast to the main idea – a trumpet tries to get down with its bad self as a banjo strums – but the jazz still comes from Berlin rather than from Harlem. The finale reminds me of Mozart in its vivacity and comedy. The humor comes across as genuine and generous. This is music of high entertainment and great courtesy. Nothing stays too long and, in Debussy's great phrase, it "seeks humbly to please."

The performances are good, but not revelatory. On the other hand, I'm not sure that these works require revelation. Oliver von Dohnányi and Marcello Viotti (the latter also has an interesting Poulenc CD) turn in crisp, clear readings. Sound is good.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz