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“Cesko” – Works of SCHULHOFF, & DVORAK – Ragazze Q. – Channel Classics

“Česko” = ERWIN SCHULHOFF: String Quartet No. 1; DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op. 106; SCHULHOFF: Esquisses de jazz (arr. Leonard Evers) – Ragazze Quartet – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 36815, 65:00 [Distr. Harmonia mundi] (5/15/15) ****:

A very attractive program of Bohemian yin and yang.

The “young Dutch/British” Ragzze Quartet here presents a program that is obviously dear to their hearts. And if it doesn’t quite seem to mesh as you think about it, both composers are Bohemian (hence the title Česko, the popular Eastern-European nickname for Bohemia), and both tap into the folk traditions of their native land though in very different ways. At the same time, both are cosmopolitan composers whose musical influences came as much from abroad as from their homeland.

Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague of a German-Jewish family. As a child, he met and was encouraged in his musical studies by none other than Dvořák, entering the Prague Conservatory before moving on to Leipzig and Paris, where Schullhoff studied with both Max Reger and Claude Debussy. Quite a musical mix, which certainly influenced his music making.

Following service on the Eastern Front during World War I, Schulhoff traveled to Germany, where he joined the Dadaist movement. During this period, Schulhoff underwent “the influence of jazz. . .forging his own style from Schönberg’s expressionism and Stravinsky’s neo-classicism.” Returning to Prague in 1925, he rediscovered his Bohemian roots, continuing to incorporate folk elements in his later work.

Given the range of influences in his musical life, Schulhoff traversed a number of stylistic periods, including an early post-Romantic period, a Dadaist period, and most importantly, the period of the First String Quartet and Esquisse de jazz, in which he was able to find his own voice in a style that was at once modernist and nativist. The First String Quartet of 1924 is a prime example. It has echoes, certainly, of the early quartets of Bartók, but it also incorporates folkish pentatonic passages that Dvořák would been comfortable with. There are weird patterns of high harmonics, as well as pizzicati and flageolets (“rarefied whistling sounds”) that seem to meld folk fiddling with modernist gestures. In terms of structure, Schulhoff is anything but traditionalist. The work begins with a whirling Presto con fuoco of little more than two minutes’ duration. If the next two movements more or less correspond to the typical slow movement and scherzo of the traditional string quartet, the finale is an atypical slow movement, a haunting Andante molto sostenuto that manages to be resolutely irresolute, trailing off into the sonic ether.

The Esquisses de jazz (Jazz Sketches) represents a different, less conflicted Schulhoff, one content to pay homage to the popular music of the Western hemisphere that he clearly loved and admired. Schulhoff wrote, “I have an unbelievable passion for worldly dance, and I even go through periods in which I dance night after night with women from the bar (by the way, I only do modern dance like the foxtrot, boston, slingan, passo doppio etc.) simply out of rhythmic enthusiasm and the sensual subconscious. . . .” In fact, the five movements of Esquisses pay homage to popular dance: they’re entitled “Rag,” Boston,” “Tango,” Blues,” “Black Bottom,” and “Charleston.” As with Stravinsky’s Ragtime or the so-called Jazz Suites of Shostakovich, these pieces are an Eastern European’s musical evocation of American popular music of the day. Any direct similarities to the “Black Bottom” or “Charleston” are purely coincidental and were probably far from Schulhoff’s mind. So it’s senseless to take the composer to task, as some have done Stravinsky, for not knowing what ragtime is all about. Actually, the Schulhoff piece most faithful to its original is the “Blues” movement, which reminds me of Ravel’s singularly successful “Blues” slow movement from his Violin Sonata. The Esquisses were originally written for piano and have been skillfully arranged for the Ragazze Quartet by Leonard Evers.

With Dvořák, we’re on much more familiar musical ground, although the lovely Quartet No. 13 is not heard half as often as it should be. Like the equally effective Quartet No. 14, it was begun while Dvořák was completing his famous American Quartet in New York, in 1893. The last two quartets were both completed in 1895. Ironically, the ink dried on Quartet No. 13 a few weeks after Dvořák completed Quartet No. 14. So No.13 bears Opus 106 while No. 14 is Dvořák’s Opus 105. Both quartets celebrate the composer’s return to Bohemian and both have an earthy, folkish cast to them. However, the longish Adagio ma non troppo of Quartet 13, even though cast in the key of E-flat major, has a somber, inward quality. The theme goes through a series of free variations that explore a range of emotions; this is one of Dvořák’s most deeply felt slow movements. Then, as if to showcase the fecundity of his melodic invention, Dvořák offers a fiery scherzo in B minor with two gentle trio sections. The jaunty rondo finale includes nostalgic glimpses of the theme from the first movement, a typical feature of late Dvořák. It’s a lovely piece, beautifully played by the Ragazze Quartet but with more fire and abandon, perhaps a little less inwardness and nostalgia, than in some performances by Eastern European string quartets. It’s an approach that I find fresh and appealing.

The inclusion of the modernist Schulhoff makes for a fascinating program of confluences and (mostly) divergences. A brave choice of programming and very well executed.

Channel Classics’ surround recording, from the Doopsgenzinde Kerk in the Netherlands, is just a bit recessed and quite resonant but still has power and presence. The two-channel layer is also fine. Overall, a very attractive presentation.

—Lee Passarella

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