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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894 - 1942)
Five Pieces for String Quartet
Antonín DVORÁK
String Quartet No.14, op. 105
12 Microludes op. 13
Hagen Quartett
Deutsche Grammophon 469 066-2 [56:49]
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String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2
Five Pieces for String Quartet

Schönberg Quartett
Koch Schwann 3-1233-2 [69:39]
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String Quartets Nos. 0, 1 & 2
Five Pieces for String Quartet

Kocian Quartet
Supraphon 11 2166-2 131 [80:02]
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The music of Erwin Schulhoff has become increasingly well known over the last few years, largely resulting from Decca's ground-breaking 'Entartete Musik' series which included his opera Flammen amongst its most significant releases.

Of German descent, but Czech by birth, Schulhoff was initially influenced by the composers of his homeland, including, remarkably, Dvorák who personally encouraged him, at a very early age, to follow a musical path. He soon, however, absorbed very different styles including Debussy and the music of 'Les Six' (the one work common to all three of these CDs, the Five Pieces, was dedicated to Milhaud) as well as the 12 tone expressionists, particularly Schönberg, Webern and Berg. At first a convert to Dada-ism, Schulhoff realised in around 1920 (and not directly after the Great War as suggested by sleeve-note writer Josef Bek in the Koch booklet) that Neo-Classicism and Expressionism were fundamentally at odds with each other. Instead, however, of taking a firm line in favour of one over the other, he chose the remarkably didactic approach of working in both media. Although later he embraced the communist cause (which has tended to isolate him from the musical mainstream since World War 2) he remained throughout his too short life undogmatic about doctrines.

All of his music featured here dates from 1918-1925. The Five Pieces (1923) incorporate both the Neo-Baroque style (including the fast, slow, fast, slow, fast pattern of the Baroque suite) as well as Slavonic folk music. It is in this music that the basic differences in style and presentation between the Schönberg Quartet and the Kocian Quartet are most apparent. The Schönbergs give highly dramatic, committed and subtle performances which could hardly be bettered. In the Alla Valse Viennese the dynamic contrasts and spiky rhythms are played for all they are worth whilst the more atonal Alla Serenata with its highly charged sound world of col legno and sliding harmonies is endlessly fascinating. The Schönberg Quartett specialises in the music of the Second Viennese School, so it is hardly surprising that they play this expressionist influenced music with considerable expertise and brilliant control. The Kocian Quartet have their own speciality - the music of Czechoslovakia (a.k.a. Bohemia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia etc.) and their approach tends to be considerably softer grained, with a much lighter touch. Unfortunately, when making a direct comparison, this puts the Kocians at a distinct disadvantage, to the point where a slight lack of sheer commitment and understanding of the music's sardonic and ironic nature becomes apparent. The Alla Czeca, a polka style 'furiant' with its obvious Janacek influence, is also more effective in the Schönberg Quartett performance. Only in the Alla Tango (based on Argentinian dance rhythms) does the faster tempo of the Kocians pay real dividends with their leader - Pavel Hula - displaying a greater expressive approach. But in the Five Pieces especially 'excellence is the enemy of the good' and the Schönberg Quartett take the palm.

The Hagen Quartett also perform the Five Pieces on their mixed composer CD. Theirs too is a very fine performance, perhaps more obviously 'studied' than the Schönbergs, but first class in nearly all-important respects, especially their hell-for-leather approach to the Alla Tarantella which is wonderfully articulated by this crack team. No question that the spider's venom would be truly sweated out in such a vehement dance, whereas the patient's life in the Kocian performance would unfortunately continue to hang by a thread.

The String Quartets 1 & 2 (1924/5) represent the young Schulhoff at his best. Here there is less of an obvious gap between the qualities of the Schönberg and Kocian performances. The same fundamental differences of approach still apply, but the Kocians seem happier (perhaps better prepared) in this music than in the Five Pieces. The slightly more distant recording quality on the Supraphon disc pays particular dividends in the final movement of the First Quartet where the Andante's placement after three generally fast movements is designed to take the listener into a unexpected dream-world of stillness and desolation. The closer Koch recording rather diminishes this effect. Far from being a Pastorale or Idyll (as the booklet note writer - the same on both CDs - claims) this music, designed to wipe away the ironic discussions of the previous movements, takes us back to the tragedy of a war not long ended and certainly not forgotten, as well as the post-war landscape of desolation and deprivation.

Nevertheless the Schönberg performances are generally to be preferred; in the First Quartet for their sheer bravura in the 'grotesca' movement (a fine viola solo set against the beautifully written tracery of background accompaniment) and for their understanding of the wit in the Janacek inspired Allegro giocosa where the unexpected use of Chinese material is not over played. Much the same applies in the rather more grave Second Quartet where the Schulhoff tendency to humour is less in evidence and even the dance movement denies sheer happiness in favour of a more thoughtful recognition of contentment.

On the Kocian disc there is, however, one big and surprising bonus. In 1918, aged 24, Schulhoff, given a few weeks of leave, wrote his first essay in the quartet medium. Previously unpublished and lodged in the Museum of Czech Music in Prague, his thirty two minute String Quartet No. 0 shows us, rather movingly, the nature of Schulhoff's mindset directly after his experiences of the 'War To End Wars'. Note-writer Josef Bek has to take a u-turn on his previously held opinion (as found in the Koch booklet) that the composer came away from his war experiences knowing that his pre-war musical style had to undergo immediate change. The 1918 quartet is a remarkable piece in many ways. Movements 1, 3 and 4 are witty pastiches of classical style. Indeed the opening phrases, in each case, could come directly from an undiscovered late quartet by Haydn, but as the movements progress they each allow late nineteenth and twentieth century harmonic twists to increasingly decorate the material, although the sonata form (including in one case an exposition repeat!) is never abandoned. This quartet deserves regular performance and also to be heard by all those who find the transition from the age of Mahler to the age of Schönberg both enigmatic and fascinating. The 'unexpected note' cadences in the final movement are something of a find.

The second, slow, movement is completely different and no less fascinating. The fingerprints of both Mahler and Schönberg (Verklärte Nacht) are clearly evident and this is a most moving piece. The Supraphon booklet fails to comment on these influences, so the New Grove came to the rescue with some interesting history of Schulhoff's youth. Between 1906 and 1908 he was a student in Vienna. Gustav Mahler did not leave the city for America until December 1907, therefore it is highly likely that Schulhoff attended concerts conducted by Mahler and heard some of his symphonic output. The harmonic language of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, in particular, is strongly evident in Schulhoff's Langsam movement. It would make a fine stand-alone concert piece.

The Hagen Quartett's performance of Dvorák's late masterpiece (composed directly after his 'Cello Concerto) does not require such lengthy discussion. Simply put it is superb. The Hagens understand the need for a subtle ebb and flow in their use of rubato. They avoid any tendency to exaggeration and even the unusually long pause at 3.27 in the finale (where Dvorák almost brings the music to a dead halt in mid-movement) works perfectly in the context of the whole. The Kurtág work will please those who relish the highly concentrated atonal style of the nineteen seventies. Only three of the twelve movements last more than one minute, which I personally found a blessing.

In sum, if you want just one example of Schulhoff's chamber music the Koch/Schönberg disc is the one to go for. It also includes a fine performance of the 1924 String Sextet. But don't feel that the Kocian's slightly less dramatic view of the music should prevent you investigating the Supraphon disc. The Quartet no. 0 is a real find.

If you want a version of Dvorák's op.105, the Hagens are the quartet of choice and the fine Schulhoff coupling is an undoubted bonus, although quite why a Hungarian atonal composer should be included in an otherwise Czech disc is something of a mystery.

Finally, what happened to Schulhoff? The booklets choose not to disclose that he made the decision in 1939 to leave Czechoslovakia. Whilst planning his emigration, either to the west or to Russia, he was suddenly arrested as a communist sympathiser and sent to a concentration camp in Germany where, not long after, no doubt as a result of the conditions there, he died of tuberculosis, aged 48.


Simon Foster

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