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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some Surprises from the Early 20th Century

Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Sonata for Flute and Piano (1927) [12:02]
Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double-bass (1925) [15:30]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Sonata (1926) [38:14]
Transcribed for Flute and Piano by Felix Greissle (1899-1982) from the Quintet for Wind Instruments, Op. 26 (1923-24)

Fenwick Smith (flute)
Mark Ludwig (viola)
Edwin Barker (double-bass)
Sally Pinkas (piano) [Schulhoff Sonata]
Randall Hodgkinson (piano) [Schoenberg]

Recorded at Houghton Memorial Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, October 1982 (Schoenberg sonata); Methuen Memorial Musical Hall, Methuen, MA, May 1992 (Schulhoff concertino), Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA, June 1992, (Schulhoff sonata)

CHANDOS CHAN 10515 [66:03]

There is little that is more exciting to the long time music aficionado than the discovery of a new composer or some interesting heretofore unheard music. It is even more exciting when said listener had dismissed said composer for years on the unfounded pretext that he probably wouldn’t like his music anyway. Happy me then when I took the plunge and played this release from Chandos, a company never to be accused of peddling junk, and found myself falling in love with the contents.

Erwin Schulhoff who was born to wealthy parents in Prague, lived a tragically short life. He flourished in Germany during the heady years of the Weimar Republic, only to be carted off to a concentration camp during the horrors of the Nazi era, where he died of tuberculosis in 1941. He was composing his eighth symphony at the time.

Schulhoff was a modernist who fell under the influence of many of the trendy styles of the 1920s, including Dadaism and Jazz. He and Arnold Schoenberg were acquainted and there was for a time a regular correspondence between the two composers, but they were to take very different paths both in life and art. He is represented here by two compact chamber works. Both demonstrate his natural gift for melody, and move at a breezy pace. Unlike many composers, who signal the ends of movements with some sort of grand gesture, Schulhoff often says what he needs to say and abruptly stops, leaving the listener wondering what happened. His writing is quite contrapuntal, and his accompaniments often tend toward a busy moto perpetuo leaving the pianist with handfuls of notes requiring some pretty fleet finger work.

Unlike Schoenberg, Schulhoff embraced tonality. His music is sparkling with crunchy, jazzy dissonances, but there is a jaunty tunefulness also present. The performances here are first rate, and one wonders why they took so long to get onto the market. Fenwick Smith has technique to burn and tosses off some very sophisticated and busy writing with deft agility. There is plenty of spirit in his playing and Sally Pinkas in the 1927 sonata provides some outstanding partnership in a part that must be a bit of a knuckle buster.

Felix Greissle, who made this transcription of Schoenberg’s quintet at the composer’s suggestion, was a student and eventually son-in-law of the composer. Schoenberg wanted every note of his original score to be represented in the reduction. Proving to be impossible to play, Schoenberg finally consented to having certain notes written in small type so that there would at least be a visual representation of his original intent.

This is a massive piece, and it is dense in it its scoring. However, (and I confess here to being very hard to win over where twelve-tone music is concerned) I was amazed to find myself drawn to the complexities of the sounds I was hearing. It is as if Schoenberg made a conscious and even Herculean effort to make his new-ish system of composition able to be lyrical, in spite of its disdain for traditional harmony. The end result is a piece of immaculate and fastidious construction, a work that upon repeated listening bears more and more fruit.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Hodgkinson bring out every facet of this incredibly complicated score. They find the drama, the pathos and the sadness in the music, and yes, even moments of delicate lyricism. It must have been a beast to learn, especially for the pianist, but one would never know from listening to this performance that either artist ever broke a sweat..

Will this piece be suitable for every listener? Probably not, but the splendid Schulhoff works make this disc worth the money, even if they are sadly brief! Nonetheless, there are great rewards to be found here amongst all the complexity. I for one found a new appreciation for dodecaphony, in spite of my previous misgivings. That in the process I found such an attractive composer as Schulhoff was all the greater reward.

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