* Symphony No. 5 (1938/39) 'A Romain Rolland'
* Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921)
* Symphony No. 2 (1932)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/James Conlon.
Capriccio 67 080 Total time: 72:46
Summary for the Busy Executive: More tragedy from the last 100 years.
Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech Jew executed by the Nazis, wrote music
like birds sing. He began as a piano prodigy, getting into the Prague
conservatory on the recommendation of Dvorak himself. Schulhoff's career
divides neatly into early, middle, and late. Early on, he gets caught
up in various currents of the Twenties: the fascination with jazz,
neoclassicism, dada, and even some expressionism. Georg Grosz became
an artistic hero, and Schulhoff had one of the largest private collections
of American jazz records in Europe. His middle period is largely
neoclassic, while his final one connects both to the German neue
Saechlichkeit and to Stalin's Socialist Realism.
This CD brings together music from all phases of Schulhoff's career.
The earliest, the Suite for Chamber Orchestra, presents stylizations
of jazz popular dances, taking off from pieces like Stravinsky's Ragtime.
Four years later, Schulhoff recycled this music for his ballet Die
Mondsuechtige. Given Schulhoff's knowledge of real jazz (not always the
case among the European composers who wrote jazzy pieces), I expected
an individual or at least unusual take, but the music doesn't differ
all that much from something like Martinu's Revue de cuisine or Le Jazz.
Still, it's a very witty piece. The most unconventional movement in the
suite is "Step" (that is, the bare-bones music played for a tap dancer's
"break") -- all percussion. However, if you've ever heard what a jazz
drummer does with his kit for a tap dancer, you might find it a bit tame.
For me the most affecting movement is the "Tango," sinuous, uneasy --
music you might hear in the Twilight Zone. The scoring throughout is
Schulhoff worked for many years for radio, as conductor, composer,
and pianist. As a composer, he viewed his main problem as effective
orchestration overcoming the crummy fidelity. The usual gambits of
soulful, Brucknerian massed strings sounded muddy and "small" at the
same time. The limits of radio moved him into neoclassicism -- clear,
vigorous counterpoint, light strings, and an emphasis on the reedier,
more penetrating winds, like oboes and high flutes. The Symphony No.
2 -- to judge by the number of recordings, his most popular -- represents
the summit of this phase. In four movements, the symphony begins with
a motor-allegro, filled with little Baroque licks. The following andante
con moto, emphasizes the "con moto" rather than the andante. It brings
to mind a pokey gavotte. Again, the Baroque, objectified and updated,
shows up here and there in turns of phrase and harmony. It's more a
matter of suggestion than imitation. The scherzo reverts to Schulhoff's
early jazz manner, with solos for muted trumpet and sax, a greater
emphasis on percussion and syncopation, and strums from the ol' banjo.
Despite the previous movements, it doesn't seem out of place -- my
favorite of the four. The finale lets its hair down in a Haydnesque
rondo. Obviously, Schulhoff has little interest in the Grand Statement.
The symphony charms, rather than exhorts or lectures. If you enjoy Haydn
symphonies, you might go for this one.
However, Schulhoff's musical mind had trouble settling on any one thing.
In the early Thirties, he committed himself to Communism and, like most
artists on the left, wondered about how his art could uplift the proletariat
and convert the bourgeoisie. Many composers with Schulhoff's predicament
based their art on popular, vernacular sources, Copland and Weill among
them. Schulhoff, of course, could easily and logically have reverted
to his jazz manner, but I believe his artistic restlessness denied him
that possibility. His music became more outwardly serious and dour, in
a way that reminds me both of Weill's first symphony (also with a
high-minded social program) and of Shostakovich's "poster" symphonies.
His fourth symphony addressed the Loyalist cause of the Spanish Civil
War, and his fifth, the Munich Agreement which effectively left
Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.
Schulhoff's dedication of the fifth to French Nobel laureate Romain
Rolland may puzzle those unfamiliar with the writer's later career.
Rolland, beginning as a pacifist and greatly influenced by Gandhi in the
Twenties, became increasingly drawn to Socialism as he got older. As
Europe fell into the twin nightmares of war and Fascism, Rolland must
have appealed to Schulhoff as a very timely figure.
Compared to the second, Schulhoff's fifth symphony is written with a
much broader and heavier brush. He trades his previous subtle wit for
hortatory power. Indeed, if you know only his work from the Twenties
and early Thirties, this symphony will surprise you. It's a "war"
symphony, and no mistake. Ideas are not only repeated, but hammered.
Schulhoff wants you to get the point. The expressive meanings lie right
on the surface -- indeed, come right up to your face, like the classic
Che Guevara (Viva Che) print.
In four movements, the symphony opens with martial, mechanized figures,
dominated by brass and drums. You can practically see German tanks
rolling across the Sudetenland. There's variation here, but little sense
of transformation. Schulhoff sticks with these figures and to mainly
one key (not even a key, so much as a pedal or anchor tone) throughout
the entire movement -- an anti-symphonic symphony in that regard. The
second movement -- an adagio -- more or less surveys the battlefield
aftermath. It's a gorgeous piece, avoiding the cliches of mourning
music, filled with powerful feeling that never steps over to the mawkish.
The scherzo (my favorite movement), curiously enough, blends the one in
Beethoven's Ninth, especially in the timpani figures, and Vaughan
Williams's Sixth. Demons fly and howl through the air, getting more and
more distant as we reach the center. They then wheel about and drive
back up to the movement's end. The final measures will raise your hair
(assuming you have any). The finale, the longest movement in the work
by far, gives us heroic struggle against the dark forces and, of course
-- Socialist Realist dictates being what they were -- ultimate triumph.
There are hints of what sounds to me like Russian folksong, but only
here and there. For me, the movement goes on for far too long. It could
have lost five minutes with little problem. Despite some wonderful
passages, in general it comes over as too simplistic and too disjointed.
So a flawed symphony, but a powerful one.
Against the odds, I have several different performances of the Second
Symphony and the Suite. Conlon beats them all. It's easily the first
recommendation. The others are good enough, but Conlon seems to bring
something more urgent and more individual to the table. The orchestra
sounds like it's doing more than a very professional read-through. Conlon
also does what he can to bring momentum and shape to the finale of the
Fifth. It ain't easy. The sound is good, though not spectacular.