Schulhoff shapeshifter DE3566

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Concerto for piano and small orchestra, Op. 43 (1923)
Five Pieces for string quartet (1923)
Suite [No. 3] for piano left hand (1926)
Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1927)
Susi for piano solo (1937)
DELOS DE3566 [77]

This all-Schulhoff release, ‘Shapeshifter’, comprises of a piano concerto and four chamber works,  works spanning twenty-four years. Recorded by The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, this forms part of the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices under its artistic director James Conlon, a project to promote the recognition and performances of repertory by composers whose careers and lives were suppressed and destroyed by the Nazi regime in Europe.

Austro-Czech composer and pianist Edwin Schulhoff was born in 1894 at Prague. A gifted child, he was encouraged by no less a figure than Dvořák who recommended the ten-year-old as a piano pupil to a professor at the Prague Conservatory. Studying at various academies, Schulhoff received tuition from Max Reger, Carl Friedberg et al and later in 1913 had a few lessons with Debussy. Following the rise of National Socialism in Germany, his Jewish heritage and communist beliefs made him a prime target for the Nazi regime who blacklisted him and classed his music as “entartete” (degenerate). He died aged forty-eight during captivity in the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Schulhoff’s music contains a wealth of inspirations and styles, including jazz, which has a fascinating musical character. Although Schulhoff recordings are becoming more plentiful, he remains a composer whose work merits wider circulation. ‘Shapeshifter’, the album title, relates to the effortlessness and command that Schulhoff displays, composing by using a broad range of elements.

Schulhoff composed his Concerto for piano and small orchestra, Op. 43 in 1923. Cast in a single movement, three sections marked Molto sostenuto – Sostenuto – Allegro alla jazz contain a bounty of styles, temperaments and influences. Piano soloist Dominic Cheli is in impressive form and under conductor James Conlon, the RVC Ensemble (Recovered Voices at Colburn Ensemble) play adroitly and decisively. This is a highly engaging and most rewarding concerto, full of colour and coming across as rather cinematic in character.

From the same year is his Five Pieces for string quartet in the manner of a baroque dance suite. Comprising of players with connections to The Colburn School the string quartet flourishes in these five miniature pieces communicating Schulhoff’s portrayal of the dance styles characteristic of his day. There is a rather quirky Viennese waltz combined with Ländler rhythms, a type of distorted serenade, vibrant somewhat Bartókian Czech rhythms, a sultry tango milonga and, to conclude, a feverish tarantella.

The Suite for piano, left hand, written in 1926, was intended for Czech pianist Otakar Hollmann who had been wounded in the right-hand in the Great War. Schulhoff’s five movement Suite is gratifyingly played by Cheli who produces a variety of characterful rhythms and tone colours. I particularly admire the dreamy mood communicated by the Preludio, and the third movement, a puckish dance-like Zingara, also stands out.

Schulhoff composed his Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano in 1927. It’s a work cast in four movements demonstrating a strong Bartókian influence. Violinist Adam Millstein and pianist Dominic Cheli are in admirable form, providing intensity and fluidity in equal measure. Rhythmic and jittery, the opening movement Allegro impetuoso is followed by a ripely impassioned Andante. Short in duration, the Burlesca: Allegretto is characterised by boisterous dramatics, the Finale dashing along feverously. Cheli seems to relish Susi, the delightful, melodic miniature for solo piano from 1937 recalling the brighter and more positive mood of the ‘Golden Twenties’ or ‘Happy Twenties’ in Germany.

Delos’ engineering team has achieved pleasingly clear and well-balanced sound. Rebecca Stewart has written informative notes for the album.

These are praiseworthy performances of fascinating repertoire.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John France (December 2022)

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Dominic Cheli (piano), RVC Ensemble/James Conlon
Five Pieces
Gallia Kastner (violin), Adam Millstein (violin), Cara Pogossian (viola), Ben Solomonow (cello)
Dominic Cheli (piano),
Adam Millstein (violin), Dominic Cheli (piano)
Dominic Cheli (piano)

Recording Details
6-8 May 2021, Olive Rehearsal Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
Five Pieces
14 December 2020 Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
5-6 December 2020 Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
19 March 2021, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles