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GP604 - SCHULHOFF, E.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 - Partita / Susi / Suite No. 3 / Variationen und Fugato, Op. 10 (Weichert)
Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942)
Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8 June 1894 and showed musical ability from an early age. A musical career was decided upon on the recommendation of no less than Antonín Dvořák, Schulhoff studying at the Prague Conservatory from 1904 followed by piano tuition in Vienna from 1906 then composition in Leipzig with Max Reger from 1908 and latterly in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach from 1911. In the meantime he laid the basis of a career as a pianist, while his efforts at composing were rewarded with the Mendelssohn Prize in 1918 for a piano sonata. While his music up to the First World War had shown the expected absorbing of influences from Brahms and Dvořák, via Strauss, to Debussy and Scriabin, four years spent in the Austrian army saw him adopt a more radical stance both artistically and politically. Over the next few years, he took on the values of both the Expressionism represented by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and the Dadaism as espoused by George Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz found its way directly into much of Schulhoff’s music from the period.
The later 1920s saw something of a rapprochement between these competing aesthetics—evident in a number of chamber works and concertos, as well as the First Sybmphony, the ballet Ogelala, the ‘jazz oratorio’ HMS Royal Oak and an opera about Don Juan entitled Flammen which, however, was a failure at its Brno première in 1932. That year also saw Schulhoff’s Second Symphony, its lucid neoclassicism hinting at a change of direction whose political motivation was soon confirmed in the cantata Das Manifest with its settings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Looking to the Soviet Union for a solution to the political and economic problems besetting Europe, he focussed on the symphony as the best medium to communicate his new monumental idiom. Six more were begun between 1935 and 1942, though the Seventh and Eighth are unfinished. Having lived in Prague for most of the inter-war years, working as a pianist in theatre productions and for radio broadcasts, Schulhoff was to find himself without any means of support after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Although he took Soviet citizenship, he was arrested before he could finalize his emigration to the Soviet Union, being deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died (most probably of tuberculosis) on 18 August 1942.
Schulhoff’s jazz-inspired music occupies a specific period in his output and represents a move away from the iconoclastic stance of his music soon after the First World War toward an idiom that was contemporary though accessible to a broader audience without as yet needing to be overtly political. Although these works are predominantly chamber and instrumental, elements of jazz are detectable in such larger-scale works as the First Symphony (1925) and the opera Flammen (1929) and reach their apogee in the ‘jazz oratorio’ HMS Royal Oak (1930). Such elements then decrease markedly in the face of the composer’s intensifying political commitment, though work as a freelance pianist meant they did not disappear from his music until his very last years. As with his older contemporary Martinů, jazz had become integrated into his musical thinking without needing to draw attention to itself.
Partita (1922) is one of a group of pieces moving away from Schulhoff’s involvement with the experimental and Dada-inspired. Its title is notable in that the partita was still synonymous with Bach’s keyboard works, albeit with the dances of the Baroque era here replaced by those of the jazz age. Tempo di Fox is a nonchalant take on the Foxtrot, while Jazz-like makes effective play with crosscut rhythms. Tango-Rag treats its underlying measure to sophisticated metrical dovetailing then, despite its title, Tempo di Fox à la Hawaii is a stylization out of time and place. Boston is the longest number, a taciturn study that extracts an unexpected range of expression from its prevailing metre, while Tempo di Rag indulges in teasing asides from its main rhythmic profile. Tango is as moodily evocative as that dance might suggest, then Shimmy-Jazz ends the sequence with its knowingly pert humour.
A transcription of a relatively late foray into popular song, Susi (1937) is among the most melodically appealing of all Schulhoff’s jazz-related compositions and the more surprising given it appeared between the socialist-inspired monumentalism of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.
The Third Suite (1926) differs from those before it in being written for the left hand, the jazz element just part of a wider synthesis that takes in other stylistic options from the period. Preludio features translucently modal harmonies that are pointed up by a corresponding rhythmic instability. Air is a resourceful canonic invention whose harmonic austerity does not preclude expressive poise, while Zingara could almost be an escapee from a folk-inspired collection by Bartók. Improvisazione draws a range of gestures out of its motivic flow, before Finale rounds off the sequence with its rhythmic bravura.
Standing apart from the other works on this recording, the Variations and Fugue on an Original Dorian Theme (1913) was written when the composer was barely into his twenties and designated his Op 10. It reflects the influence of an earlier generation, notably Debussy, with whom Schulhoff had studied briefly that year. The Theme itself is unassuming yet appealing with something of French Impressionism. Variation 1 introduces greater rhythmic variety, then Variation 2 focuses on its harmonic subtleties, to which Variation 3 offers notably robust contrast. Variation 4 is quizzical and humorous by turns, while Variation 5 quietly dissolves its underlying rhythmic profile into a limpid and affecting soliloquy, countered in Variation 6 with a trenchant immediacy. Variation 7 is offhand yet purposeful, then Variation 8 yields a hesitant langour, which Variation 9 blows away with no mean abandon. Variation 10 moves far from the theme in rhythm and texture, while Variation 11 concentrates on impetuosity, then Variation 12 heads up and down the keys with discreet enjoyment. Variation 13 is a study in forthright chordal writing, then Variation 14 teases out largely fresh melodic possibilities, while Variation 15 extracts an unexpected emotional depth. The Finale is a compact yet intricate fugue that begins quietly enough, only to have amassed a powerful momentum by the close.
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