SCHULHOFF: Concertos [TrackList follows] – Deutsches Symphonie-Orch. Berlin/ Roland Kluttig – Capriccio

SCHULHOFF: Concertos [TrackList follows] – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/ Roland Kluttig – Capriccio C5197 (Distr. by Naxos) [5/27/14] *****:

One by one, the works of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942) are reaching the listening public he always deserved. Once labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi, he wrote works of startling immediacy and occasional controversy. Thriving in the free-for-all atmosphere of the Weimar period of the twenties, he continued his development as a composer into the thirties under the near-impossible conditions that faced a Jewish composer. A revolutionary, he once wrote an oratorio entitled The Communist Manifesto, which is more riveting than its title suggests. (I’ve only found one recording, and it’s here on YouTube.) Because of its persistent ff dynamics, it reminds me of Dimitry Shostakovich’s Execution of Stenka Razin.

The current CD provides a good introduction to the many styles Schulhoff tried. His early work, Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra (1923) reveals his affinity to late-Romantic syntax and grand Mahlerian gestures, but is also suffused with dramatic tension and sudden rhythmic explosions. Its last movement is labeled “Allegro alla Jazz,” and shows his attraction to the spirited antics of American jazz a year before the publication of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (also for orchestra and piano).

The second work, Concerto Doppio for Flute and Piano is more neo-classical in form and no less attractive musically. Led by the excellent flautist Jacques Zoon, the piece exploits its concerto grosso roots to excellent effect. Its andante features sophisticated interplay between piano and flute, both joined to a melancholic theme. The final movement is highly entertaining, with heavily accented rhythms and blues-inflected motives. The two horns are prominent at the opening and anchor the lofty aspiring of the flute somewhat. Schulhoff once said that music “should primarily produce physical well-being through rhythm” and proves it through this composition.

The third work reminds me of a Paul Hindemith Kammermusik composition, so virtuosic are its demands on the players. He strategically sprinkles dissonances throughout, as a kind of musical spice. The composition’s appeal is largely visceral, but its structure is a bit more austere. Here we have a string quartet competing with a wind orchestra, an unusual juxtaposition that works splendidly all the way through. Again, the ending features an intermezzo with a blues theme to it. It is the most sophisticated piece on the disk and worthy of many listens.

The final work is a most curious inclusion but I know why the producers did it. It is an orchestration of Beethoven’s short piano work, “Rage over a Lost Penny.” This is a well-done, expertly composed pastiche that demonstrates Schulhoff’s profound understanding of Beethoven’s music. It also demonstrates something else. Composed in 1940 and under an assumed name, it was clearly done for a quick buck. Is reminds me of the orchestrations Anton Webern did of Schubert’s piano works in the mid-1930s. Deeply felt, highly competent, but at the core, profoundly pathetic.

If you have few (or none) of the works of Erwin Schulhoff, this CD is an excellent place to start. If you like it, you may find, as I have, his works become so addictive that even a Communist oratorio sounds good. It looks like the time for this Dadaist/revolutionary/jazz-enthusiast composer has finally arrived.

TrackList:

Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 43
Double Concerto for Flute and Piano, Op. 63
Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Ensemble
Ludwig van Beethoven: Rondo a capriccio in G Major, Op. 129, “Rage over a lost penny” (arr. E. Schulhoff for orchestra)

—Peter Bates

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