SCHULHOFF: Violin Sonatas – Suite for violin and piano; Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano; Sonata for solo violin; Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano – Tanja Becker-Bender, violin/ Markus Becker, piano – Hyperion CDA67833, 67:10 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Erwin Schulhoff’s (1894-1942) roots as a Czech of Jewish-German origin is reminiscent of Mahler, who once famously said “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.” Schulhoff’s ability to integrate the different musical and political cultures that seethed in the decades between the two Great Wars, is one reason that his music has been recovered and performed after his premature death in 1942. At age eight, as a child prodigy, Schulhoff was admitted to the Prague Conservatory to study piano at the recommendation of Dvorak, who had little interest in prodigies. He was rewarded with a piece of chocolate. The works on this disc cover the early and middle periods of Schulhoff’s composing life.
The Suite for violin and piano (1911) is a student work that expresses the composer’s love for the dance – three of the movements are dance forms (Gavotte, Minuet and Waltz). It’s a deliciously tart late Romantic work that ends with an especially beautiful and clever Scherzo. The Sonata No. 1, written two years later, is more harmonically sophisticated and shows the influence of Debussy, with whom he briefly studied. It’s dreamy, wanders at times, and is less rhythmically precise. Yet, it’s emotionally effective because of its long lyrical lines. In both of these works, the Becker-Bender duo’s collaboration is richly romantic and the full clear sound is most appealing.
In his middle period (after World War I), Schulhoff was a brilliant pianist who championed the avant garde, performing Berg, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Webern, among others. The Sonata for solo violin (1927) reflects these contemporary artists. It makes use of the solo violin’s musical possibilities from rhythmic fireworks to chromatic lyricism. Later, his music veered towards jazz, Dadaism, French neoclassicism and Slavonic folk music. At one time, he had one of the largest jazz record collections in Europe. The Violin Sonata No. 2 begins in a rhythmically exuberant manner that suggests a jazz influence, but it’s more akin to Bartok with its acerbic chromaticism and motivic spikiness. The intense and slow-burning Andante sticks in the memory. The composer’s final years saw him compose music in the style of Social Realism, motivated by his passion for communism. Unfortunately, it led to his imprisonment and death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 48.
Violinist Tanja Becker-Bender and pianist Markus Becker demonstrate an astonishing ability to perform the diverse musical and stylistic demands of these engrossing works. Erwin Schulhoff is a composer who is deservedly becoming better known and this superbly performed and recorded CD is an excellent place to make his acquaintance.
— Robert Moon