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CD Review

Ervín Schulhoff

Concertos alla Jazz

  • Piano Concerto
  • Double Concerto for Flute and Piano
  • Concerto for String Quartet
  • 5 Études de Jazz (excerpts) *
  • Esquisses de Jazz (excerpts) *
  • Rag-Music/Partita (excerpts) *
Aleksandar Madzar, piano
* Ervín Schulhoff, piano
Bettina Wild, flute
Hawthorne String Quartet
German Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra/Andreas Delfs
London 444819-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Strong neoclassic works from one of the century's great individualists.

Another entry in London's (British Decca) "Entartete Musik" series, devoted to composers killed or suppressed by the Third Reich. The Czech composer Ervín Schulhoff died in a concentration camp in 1942, about 48 years old. This isn't a very long time, but Schulhoff had composed since his teens, so he had roughly a thirty-year career. Record companies - not just London - have become interested enough to take flyers in his music, although his final period of "Socialist Realism" (culminating in an oratorio on "The Communist Manifesto") remains pretty much unheard. Schulhoff's artistic personality seemed at war with itself. On the one hand, just about everything he wrote displays a high degree of musicality and finish. On the other, he never seemed to settle on any one style for long. He loved American jazz. Indeed, he was one of the few Europeans who had heard the real thing early on and amassed one of the largest private jazz record collections in Europe. Yet aside from surface gestures, jazz never really influenced the music he wrote. In essence, Schulhoff used jazz just as Stravinsky, Weill, Honegger, early Hindemith, and Martinů did - as a way to clear out lingering spores of late nineteenth-century musical habits and gestures. For almost all of these men, jazz represented a way-station on the journey toward a deeply personal Modernism. Schulhoff, on the other hand, seems "unsettled," like Lukas Foss. His death left us with speculations as to how his music would have continued. London previously released his ballet suite Die Mondsüchtige (the moonstruck or the sleepwalker), pleasant enough, but ultimately a minor score. Here, we confront a far more challenging program. The album's title "Concertos alla Jazz" misleads slightly. None of the concerti are particularly jazzy, at least in a way an American like me would recognize.

The Piano Concerto uses far more Debussy (by way of Stravinsky's Firebird) than jazz, even the European dance-band music that passed for jazz just after the First World War. The work inhabits dark emotional territory, with queasy, disturbing harmonies only occasionally breaking out into a full singing. However, the latter never lasts long. The piano soloist plays alone I would say most of the time, without ever quite heading into pure cadenza. Unlike its role in the traditional concerto, the orchestra exists mainly to support the soloist or to reinforce points the soloist has already made. One finds very little give-and-take or even the traditional competition. The musical material is, shall we say, scant. The second movement, for example, consists largely of a Phrygian run up a fourth. The finale at last breaks up the emotional and musical obsessiveness with a bright, percussive opening that syncopates somewhat like a fox trot and evokes the jazz drum kit, but compared to the real thing, it marches rather than swings and soon winds down into a lament for solo violin accompanied by the piano. Schulhoff gingers the music up for the brief coda, but overall the emotion expressed is a profound funk. Schulhoff writes beautifully and with great assurance; he stretches the meager number of ideas to the maximum and with great expressive power. I just don't recommend it for bipolar personalities on the downswing.

No reservations whatsoever about the Double Concerto - to me one of the composer's artistically vigorous and psychologically most integrated works. Schulhoff wrote it for himself and the great French flutist René Le Roy as soloists. One gets from the work a great feeling of Paris in the Twenties (although Schulhoff didn't write it there exclusively) and of what the French imply by the word mesure - a sense of proportion, balance, elegance, and restraint. At the time, Paris, of course, had diverse strands and a wide expressive range of music, most of which derived from either Stravinsky or Debussy. From the fripperies of Les Six's Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel to the granitic Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky, you could hear just about anything in Paris, probably the great music capital of Jazz-Age Europe. Schulhoff stands a little apart, but not much. The first two movements eschew shock for a noble and athletic neo-classicism - similar to the later works of Hindemith and the American Walter Piston. There's a striving for gravitas reminding me somewhat of Roussel, if you press me for possible influences. For the third movement, Schulhoff creates a theme right at home with something light by Auric, Milhaud, or Poulenc - a cheeky combination of folk song and street ditty. Here, too, a jazzy passage flits through, sort of like a hotel band half-heard in the distance. All the movements are beautifully worked out. The byplay between the two instruments, soli and with the orchestra, fully satisfy. The orchestra doesn't merely accompany, as it does mostly in the Piano Concerto, and it doesn't dominate. Everybody gets his licks and, most importantly, takes part in the conversation. One might miss the competitive, heroic aspect in this concerto, but something more mature and congenial replaces it. In many ways, because of the dearth of precedent, I imagine this kind of conversation harder to construct. At any rate, it brings the concerto closer to the ethos of great chamber music. Two other composers who satisfy like this in their concerti are Mozart and Martinů. I can't say enough good about it.

According to the liner notes, the latest work here, the Concerto for String Quartet, comes from Schulhoff's experience as a radio and recording-studio musician, and the composer wrote it with contemporary electric-mike techniques and capabilities in mind. Schulhoff emphasizes the contrast in sound between winds and brass (a 15-piece wind ensemble comprises the orchestra) and the string quartet. The soloists and tutti very rarely blend. The solo wind writing is mainly harsh and in-your-face, despite a downright lovely opening to the second movement. What delicacy we encounter comes from its accompaniment to the string quartet - often just one or two instruments, so as not to drown out the strings - although the string writing itself is hardly gentle in idiom. The language, though neoclassic, sounds more Central European than French, coming close in spots to Bartók. I hear no jazz in it whatsoever. The seriousness of emotional purpose has increased from Schulhoff's music in the early Twenties, without falling into his early trap of neurotic obsession. I think one could fairly describe the concerto as "grave." The idiom differs from every other work on the CD - Schulhoff's mind getting restless again. The third movement begins like a folk dance from a very sophisticated village band, much like the faster parts of Bartók's Hungarian Sketches.

The solo piano pieces, played by the composer himself, sound like bagatelles, interesting mainly for how far the music lies from the promise of the titles: "Tango," "Blues," "Charleston," "Tango-Rag," and so on. The most interesting piece comes from the 5 Études - the "Chanson," which sounds a lot like Biederbeke or even an adumbration of cool jazz. The composer plays with a rhythmic elasticity that indicates his familiarity with real jazz playing. Since Schulhoff recorded these works in 1928, the sound of course is mono, but electrical rather than acoustical. There's a mild patina of surface noise, but nothing too irritating. The performances are infectious and affecting.

Madzar does yeoman's work in the Piano Concerto, keeping the listener glued to Schulhoff's minimal changes of basic cells and never dropping the narrative thread. He also proves himself a superb chamber partner to Bettina Wild in the Double Concerto. The Hawthorne fails to grip the listener like the other soloists do, and in many ways it has the most interesting music. Delfs and the German Chamber Philharmonic do alright in the piano and double concerti. In the string quartet concerto, they're too monochromatic and blunt. They get all the notes as far as I can tell, but they don't let the music breathe. You could substitute a synthesizer with little loss. The engineering is London's usual excellent - sound both rich and clear.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet