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Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music: 1918-1938
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Suite Op.13 (1935) [14.29]
Jaroslav JEŽEK (1906-1942)
Bugatti-Step (1931) [3.35]
Bagatelles (1933) [13.20]
Equatorial Rag (1929) [2.01]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five Pittoresken Op.31 (1919) [17.08]
Frantisek E BURIAN (1904-1959)
Waltz (1937) [1.40]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Kleinseiten-Palais – Andante (1927)
Untitled [0.39]
Melodie (c.1923) [0.39]
Nur blindes Schicksal? (1927) [0.57]
Der goldene Ring (1928) [0.31]
Ich erwarte Dich (1928) [1.38]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Par T.S.F (1924) [1.01]
Instructive Duo for the Nervous film en miniature (1925) [0.51]
Tango [2.33]
Scherzo [1.37]
Berceuse [4.02]
Valse [1.50]
Chanson [1.38]
Carillon [1.40]
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
rec. December 2001, unspecified location. DDD

The programming here is unique. Other discs have covered some of the same ground but you won’t find it displayed in the same way, with Ježek to the fore, Janáček’s epigrammatic late piano leaves mixing with Martinů’s French frolics, and with Schulhoff coming on in the spirit of George Grosz.
One connecting thread that binds Burian, Ježek and Schulhoff was membership of Devetsil, an arts group with demotic tendencies. Their beer-hall-and-lecture-room aesthetic combined love of popular music with allegiance to higher art and it shows in their piano works. Ježek’s Bugatti-Step dates from 1931 and sounds like the result of a coupling between Billy Mayerl and Zez Confrey; his slightly earlier Equatorial Rag is attractive but is rather over-done in this performance.
The Bagatelles date from 1933 and there are ten of them – slithers of wit and drollery. Steffen Schleiermacher plays them with a certain elegant warmth, extending the slow movements to extract the full weight of gravity enshrined there. His is a gentlemanly solution but turn to Jan Novotny on Panton 1145, recorded in 1985, and another Ježek emerges. Novotny relishes the harmonic astringencies and arrhythmic games-playing that Schleiermacher downplays or smoothes over. Note the way Novotny finds the satiric heart of the second movement Andante, or the curious and modernist slant he finds in the first Lento where his German rival is characteristically more withdrawn and clement. The Funeral March offers the widest divergence – utterly different conceptions entirely, a manic Novotny, very fast, and a more sociable Schleiermacher.
There’s competition too in the Haas Suite.  Paul Orgel has recorded a Terezin-inspired programme for Phoenix (PHCD 161) but here honours are more even. The rather more insistent, boxy Phoenix sound gives more immediacy to the dance rhythms of the Danza but Schleiermacher plays with greater intensity and incision in the opening Praeludium – bigger contrasts as well. They diverge over the speed of the slow movement – Orgel feels it much more quickly, rather as Novotny took the Ježek quicker. 
Schulhoff’s 1919 suite, dedicated to Grosz by the way, is notable not only for its high jinks but for the central movement, 3.08 of silence – it consists entirely of rests. Did John Cage know of it when he wrote his slightly more extended piece de resistance? Perhaps the world should know. The other movements mix foxtrots with ragtime though the final movement is more harmonically questing and a foretaste of the more brittle Schulhoff who to emerge in the later part of the 1920s.
Janáček’s little pieces are brief, mainly forty second pieces. They range form the lyric interlude of the Melodie, the earliest of the six written in 1923, to the touching if open ended piece he wrote four days before his death, The Golden Ring. One or two inhabit a distinct Schumannesque sound world. What the Russophile Moravian would make of the pieces being written here in German is a moot point.
Martinů’s frolicsome pieces are cinematic in inspiration – bold, vampy, raggy, pawky tango-ish, with a warm and delicate song or two as well. The carillon calls of the last of the eight is especially attractive in its chordal vivacity but you’d be a veritable Martinů-Meister to be able to connect the composer with any of these pieces.
Finally, Burian gives us a tragic vista on a man crushed by the Nazis and then worn down and ostracised by the Communists; his works were burned in front of his eyes by the Gestapo - this little Waltz from his revue Quiet was one of the few to escape. His refusal to peddle the party line cost him dear and he died at the age of fifty-four in 1959.
Despite the melancholy of Burian’s life this disc has a life-affirming strength to it. I prefer Novotny in Ježek and occasionally (but not always) Orgel in Haas. But there’s latitude in this kind of repertoire for a variety of responses and if you are attracted by the repertoire you will find much of interest. But if you want Ježek you must have Novotny.

Jonathan Woolf


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