Classical Album Review: Czech-Born Composer Erwin Schulhoff — “Shapeshifter”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

This is a strongly played effort that makes a powerful case for the vitality and worth of Erwin Schulhoff’s oeuvre, particularly his mature chamber music.

So potent was the influence of composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg that it’s little surprise that so much music written in the 1920s and ’30s bears the thumbprint of those two giants. Even major composers weren’t immune: just try to imagine Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin without the model of The Rite of Spring.

Even so, Bartók found his own way. So did the Czech-born Erwin Schulhoff, one of a generation of composers silenced and murdered by the Nazis but whose music has benefited from a resurgence of interest in the last 30 years. Shapeshifter, a new album from musicians at USC’s Colburn School and conductor James Conlon, shines a spotlight on, mostly, Schulhoff’s mature chamber music. It is, by and large, a strongly played effort that makes a powerful case for the vitality and worth of this composer’s oeuvre.

The highlight is Schulhoff’s Violin Sonata No. 2, a four-movement effort from 1927 that echoes, in more ways than one, ideas reminiscent of Bartók. Yet the piece manages to go, rather resoundingly, in its own way, too. Its outer movements are related thematically: the last serves as a resolution to the tumultuous first’s unanswered rhetorical statements. In between comes a haunting, funereal Andante and a diabolically elfin “Burlesca.”

As played by violinist Adam Millstein and pianist Dominic Cheli, the score sounds both motivically taut and expressively rich. The writing for the instruments is highly virtuosic but broadly idiomatic. It’s also full of bold contrasts: at times airy and fleet, sometimes sober, even a touch jazzy — the finale’s second subject seems to allude to Gershwin.

Echoes of jazz also emerge at the end of Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the disc’s biggest single selection. Cheli is, again, an inspired keyboardist, not once daunted by the music’s Szymanowski-esque (or, maybe, Ravel-like) passagework. His playing of, especially, the spare episodes in the central section are beautiful and flexible.

Conlon leads the RVC Ensemble in a richly balanced accompaniment. He manages the first third’s thick balances — in which soloist and orchestra swing back and forth between lead and backup roles – with exemplary style. Alas, the “Allegro alla jazz” finale is way too tame. Nothing’s tentative about the group’s attacks or their sense of the music’s tone; rather, the tempo is sluggish and the playing lacks requisite fire.

No such issues emerge, however, in the 5 Pieces for String Quartet or the Suite No. 3, for the Left Hand.

In the former, ostinatos drive much of the action. Over them, various rustic elements — an off-kilter, folksy waltz, a sardonic “Serenata,” a sultry “Tango milonga,” among them — unfold. The playing of the ad hoc ensemble is, throughout, clean and passionate, making much of the Pieces’ earthy moments.

Cheli imbues the solo Suite with plenty of character, too. His voicings, especially in the spirited “Zingara” and blazing Finale, are marvelously controlled, while in the piece’s reflective moments, the melodic line is always placed at the fore.

Rounding out the album is a charming account of the foxtrot-number Susi. Though he could be as rigorous a modernist as any, Schulhoff was evidently equally at home in the European popular music idioms of his day.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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