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Hyperion Records

CDA67833 - Schulhoff: Violin Sonatas
The Broken Key (1938) by Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Sprengel Museum, Hannover / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67833

Recording details: April 2010
Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: February 2011
DISCID: 230FBC11
Total duration: 66 minutes 35 seconds

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE 'DISC OF THE MONTH'

'Tanja Becker-Bender can muster both impressively full tone and a not inappropriate astringent edge. No mean virtuoso, her previous release for Hyperion was an acclaimed set of Paganini Caprices and it helps that the company provides a helpful booklet-note that does not over-egg the contextual pudding … worth a punt' (Gramophone)

'The young German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender offers absolutely stunning playing throughout this warmly recorded disc. She makes light work of the formidable technical challenges … her exemplary partnership with Markus Becker recaps equally enthralling musical rewards … the Suite is projected with great charm and elegance. Perhaps most impressive of all is their performance of the Second Sonata. Here Becker-Bender and Becker face competition from the highly rated recording by Gidon Kremer and Oleg Maisenberg on Warner. Yet this new version fizzes with an even greater degree of propulsion and exuberance … altogether this is an outstanding release that can be confidently recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'There is some challenging music here for both players and it receives performances of the highest quality, as though this music were at the very centre of the standard repertoire instead of well beyond its fringes. Tanja Becker-Bender's tonal palette is wide, not shying away in the least from the occasional heathly dig into the strings; she seems totally at home with the material and certainly has an edge in power and musical range over the relatively lithe approach of her predecessor Ivan Zenatý for Supraphon' (International Record Review)

'The performances are first rate. Tanja Becker-Bender is the assertive, often spectacular violinist. Pianist Markus Becker does fine things with accompaniments that can sometimes seem ungrateful and predominantley supportive' (The Guardian)

'Tanja Becker-Bender has no problem negotiating her way through this stylistic plurality. She indulges to charming effect the playfulness of the early suite, where shades of Korngold intertwine with the sinuousness of early Schoenberg … it's a measure of her responsiveness to the varying demands of the music that she can alter her sound so well to what is required of her at any one point … Markus Becker is a supportive duo partner throughout and the recording of both players is well balanced' (The Strad)

Violin Sonatas
Gavotte: Mäßig  [3'08]
Menuetto  [3'27]
Walzer  [4'09]
Scherzo: Schnell  [5'41]
Wuchtig  [6'16]
Ruhig  [4'51]
Scherzo: Bewegt  [2'00]
Allegro risoluto  [2'11]
Andante  [3'37]
Allegro risoluto  [3'23]

The German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender burst onto the recording scene with a dazzling set of Paganini’s Caprices which thrilled the critics. She appears here in a second disc for Hyperion with her compatriot, Markus Becker, who has made two acclaimed recordings for the label.

Erwin Schulhoff: jazz enthusiast, sometime Dadaist, surrealist and committed communist. These are some of the labels that spring to mind for this extraordinary figure, but Schulhoff was a more complex and wide-ranging musician than any neat tags suggest. This Prague-born prodigy had an intensive training rooted in the Austro-German tradition from before the age of ten, and later studied with Max Reger and Fritz Steinbacher. His music is impossible to pin down stylistically – even at a particular stage of his career. His music for violin is often outrageously virtuosic and never less than fascinating.


Other recommended albums
'Bowen: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67751/2)
Bowen: Piano Sonatas
'Martinů & Schulhoff: String Sextets' (CDH55321)
Martinů & Schulhoff: String Sextets
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55321  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Bowen: Piano Concertos' (CDA67659)
Bowen: Piano Concertos

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Erwin Schulhoff: jazz enthusiast, sometime Dadaist, surrealist and committed communist. These are some of the handy labels that spring to mind for this extraordinary figure, but Schulhoff—born in Prague on 8 June 1894 to a German-speaking, Jewish family—was a more complex and wide-ranging musician than any neat tags suggest. He came from a very musical family: his most famous ancestor was his great-uncle Julius Schulhoff, a pianist who had been encouraged in his youth by Chopin, before settling in Dresden and Berlin, where he became a widely respected piano teacher and composer. Julius had the dubious distinction of having his salon music compared unfavourably to Mozart by one of the characters in Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness, but his piano playing was another matter: the great pianist Theodor Leschetizky was astonished by Julius Schulhoff’s sound: ‘A beautiful round tone … such as I had never heard before. I went home determined to obtain the same perfection of tone.’ Julius wasn’t the only musician in the family. Erwin’s maternal grandfather was the violinist Heinrich Wolff, a prominent figure in the musical life of Frankfurt-am-Main.

With this kind of background, it is hardly surprising that the young Erwin started to demonstrate musical gifts at an early age. Despite a strong aversion to child prodigies, Antonín Dvorák encouraged the boy to develop his talent for music: in 1901 Schulhoff was introduced to the composer, and after successfully passing some aural tests he was rewarded by two bars of chocolate from the great man. As Schulhoff later recalled, ‘it was in this way that Dvorák said I had graduated as a musician’ (quoted in Josef Bek: Erwin Schulhoff: Leben und Werk, Hamburg, 1994, p 12). Before his tenth birthday, Schulhoff embarked on a long period of intensive musical study rooted in the Austro-German tradition. In Prague and Vienna, he quickly developed as a pianist, before being admitted to the Leipzig Conservatoire at the age of fourteen in 1908. Though auditioned as a performer, he was increasingly interested in writing music and developed a warm rapport with his first composition teacher, Max Reger, whose influence can be detected in some of Schulhoff’s earliest pieces. From Leipzig, Schulhoff moved to Cologne, where his teacher for composing and conducting was Fritz Steinbach, the Director of the Conservatoire and conductor of the Gürzenich Orchestra. (Steinbach had been a close friend of Brahms and was a noted interpreter of his music, most famously during his years with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, 1886–1903.)

It was while studying with Steinbach in Cologne that Schulhoff wrote his Suite for violin and piano WV18, composed in 1911. Clearly this was a piece to which Schulhoff attached importance at the time, since he designated it his official Opus 1 (superseding an earlier series of opus numbers that he had used for juvenile works), and it was his first work in an extended musical form. This five-movement Suite draws in part on Baroque and later dance forms, and there’s perhaps an influence from the various suites ‘in olden style’ that were in vogue at the time. Schulhoff is likely to have been familiar with one in particular: his former teacher Reger wrote a Suite im alten Stil (Op 93) that is best known in its later version for orchestra, but was originally published for violin and piano in 1906. There’s certainly no faux-Baroque in the rhapsodic first movement, a ripely expressive Präludium in an ardent, late-Romantic style, with the tempo marking Stürmisch (Stormy). It is one of the two movements of the Suite to have superscriptions on the autograph manuscript where it is described as ‘Erotik’ (Erotic). This might seem a slightly anomalous start to a work that is largely based on old dance forms, but it’s a very effective movement and demonstrates a considerable flair for idiomatic violin writing. The Gavotte that follows is an elegantly turned movement with clear Baroque roots, but Schulhoff offers a contrast in its central section where a violin drone supports the piano. The third movement is a Menuetto (with trio) that again reveals Schulhoff’s ability to write with charm and quirky individuality, even when he is essentially composing a pastiche. The fourth movement is a waltz and here Schulhoff’s writing feels much freer: there’s not only fluency but also melodic invention tinged with melancholy, and some attractively mobile late-Romantic harmonies. After this rather haunting movement, the finale of the Suite is a Scherzo (again with trio), with a superscription on the manuscript: ‘Dance of the Little Devils’, presumably suggested by the spiky and uneasy main theme. This inventive and attractive work remained unpublished until 2004.

Completed in June 1913, as Schulhoff turned nineteen, the Sonata No 1 for violin and piano WV24 (Op 7) was another product of his years of study in Cologne. Vlastimil Musil describes it in the preface to his edition as ‘a work bearing the mark of Schulhoff’s search for his own musical expression’. The first two movements are much more complex harmonically than the less developed third and fourth movements, but there’s a marked advance from the Suite in terms of Schulhoff’s harmonic language and this can be attributed in large part to a discovery he made in 1912: the music of Claude Debussy. The first movement is cast in sonata form and is rich in Debussy-like harmonies, while the second (Ruhig – the tempo markings for the Sonata No 1 are as given in Josef Bek’s work catalogue. The published edition of this Sonata edited by Vlastimil Musil (Panton, Prague, 1966) uses Italian markings as follows: 1. Allegro risoluto; 2. Tranquillo; 3. Presto; 4. Allegro molto.) demonstrates Schulhoff’s gift for spinning long lyrical lines. The Scherzo is capricious and slightly unsettled, not only in its anxious outer sections but also in the trio section which suggests a deformed chorale tune. The opening idea of the finale dominates much of its musical argument, interrupted by contrasting slower sections (in which the spirit of Debussy is never far away). The Sonata had to wait more than a decade for its first performance, given by Schulhoff himself and the violinist Ervina Brokešová at the ISCM Festival in Prague on 29 May 1924—by which time Schulhoff was a very different composer.

Stylistically, Schulhoff is impossible to pin down, even at a particular moment in his career. By the end of World War I he was attracted to surrealism and Dadaism. Among his more intriguing experimental works are the Sonata erotica for solo mother-trumpet of 1919, a graphic score in which the ‘mother-trumpet’ is a solo female voice who fakes a notated orgasm, and the Fünf Pittoresken for piano, dedicated ‘To the Artist and Dadaist George Grosz’, the third movement of which is ‘In Futurum’, a page of elaborately notated silence. Bass Nightingale (1922), for unaccompanied contra-bassoon, is a piece in which this unlikeliest of instruments is required to imitate birdsong and, in the finale, to play a fugue with itself. During the 1920s Schulhoff also wrote extensively for orchestra and for chamber ensembles. His ballet Ogelala (1922) was first performed at Dessau in 1925. Conceived in the same spirit as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, the subject is violence, sexual frenzy and sacrifice, while the musical language is influenced by the music of American Indians, and the score includes one innovative movement entirely for percussion. But Schulhoff also wrote a good deal of purely abstract music. In 1925 he wrote a Duo for violin and cello (dedicated ‘to Maestro Leoš Janácek in deepest admiration!’), his String Quartet No 2 and his Symphony No 1 (the latter dedicated to one great conductor, Václav Talich, and given its première by another, Erich Kleiber, with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in 1928).

The manuscript of the Sonata for solo violin WV83 is dated ‘Paris–London, January 1927’. It is one of a group of serious concert works from the period that also saw Schulhoff composing some of his most successful jazz-inspired pieces for piano: Cinq études de jazz (December 1926), Esquisses de jazz (October 1927) and Hot Music (April 1928). The Sonata for solo violin is quite different—written in four compact movements, it brilliantly exploits the possibilities of an unaccompanied violin: driving rhythms in the first movement, a lyrical and highly chromatic slow movement (the opening theme uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale), a Scherzo that makes extensive use of open fifths, and a trenchant, rugged finale that is coloured with the Lydian mode (a major scale with the fourth note raised, in this case with a C sharp in G major)—a common trait of the folk music of Eastern Europe that was also used by Bartók and Janácek.

The Sonata No 2 for violin and piano WV91 was composed a few months later, in November 1927, right after the Esquisses de jazz (which includes a Charleston, Tango and Black Bottom). But as with the Sonata for solo violin it’s not jazz that is the strongest influence here but the music of Béla Bartók, which Schulhoff greatly admired. However, Schulhoff’s mature language is quite distinctive, and in this piece he makes use of some cleverly devised motivic organization that unifies the whole sonata. The first movement opens with an energetic, rhythmical violin theme which generates further ideas as the movement progresses—the contrasting second theme has some of the same rhythmic fingerprints, and the results are cohesive and compelling. But Schulhoff takes things further: the short Andante begins with slow, tolling, piano chords, but the violin starts with the same rhythmic motif as the first movement—two accented semiquavers followed by a long note—and this idea pervades the whole sonata. Indeed, the third movement Burlesca opens with the self-same rhythm, albeit in a very different context. At the start of the finale, Schulhoff reprises the opening of the first movement before moving in new directions that are propulsive and exciting. At the very end, it is the same group of three notes that drives the music to its close, marked molto feroce. Though it works well as a means of providing formal coherence, this little rhythmic cell is one that is to be found all over Schulhoff’s music of this period: the Double Concerto and Piano Sonata No 3, both written in the same year as the Violin Sonata No 2, have movements that make use of the same rhythmic motif. It was clearly a musical gesture that obsessed the composer at the time. The first performance of the Second Violin Sonata was given in Geneva on 7 April 1929 with violinist Richard Zika and Schulhoff himself at the piano.

In the 1930s, Schulhoff’s music moved in new directions, influenced in part by the composer’s growing political convictions. His jazz oratorio HMS Royal Oak of 1930 is full of tangos and foxtrots, scored for speaker, jazz singer, chorus and band. It was inspired by the so-called ‘Royal Oak Mutiny’, a dispute that broke out on board ship during a ball in 1928 (resulting in a celebrated court martial) and satirized by Schulhoff in this rather Weill-like work. The cantata Das Manifest of 1932 was composed for the fiftieth anniversary of Karl Marx’s death and set passages from the Communist Manifesto, for soloists, two mixed choirs, boys’ choir and wind orchestra, and was intended for outdoor performance. Again it is quite reminiscent of Weill and Hanns Eisler. But the 1930s also saw Schulhoff producing a number of arrangements of folksongs and dances, and most of his symphonies: from the Second in 1932 to the Sixth (‘Freedom Symphony’) in 1940 which he dedicated to the Red Army. Schulhoff’s Seventh Symphony (‘Eroica’) survives as a piano sketch, while his Eighth bears witness to the composer’s tragic end: it was unfinished at the time of his death from tuberculosis in Wülzburg Concentration Camp on 18 August 1942.

Nigel Simeone © 2011

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