Reviewed in Classics Today by Jed Distler
The death of Erwin Schulhoff in a concentration camp in 1942 silenced one of the most interesting and creative composers of his generation, a committed communist whose unfettered fusion of jazz, folk, and classical elements has been increasingly embraced by contemporary performers. He also was a skilled and energetic piano virtuoso, as borne out in a small yet significant group of recordings he made in 1928 and 1929. Like many composer/pianists, Schulhoff tends to play his own works fast (sometimes too fast–listen to his mad scramble through the Toccata based on Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys”), but his rhythmic verve, forward sweep, and clear foreground/background textural projection contrast to many modern-day performances.
Take the Second Suite’s Toccatina, for example. Tomás Vísek on Supraphon etches each and every note in your ear with equal emphasis, while Schulhoff broadens the opening phrase in the manner of a launching pad from which the rapid passagework takes wing and dances back and forth between the hands with playful light and shade (sound clip). Also notice the Partita Tango movement’s bass lines flexibly contoured against the right-hand melody, suggesting that two performers are at work, or, more accurately, at play.
Schulhoff’s slightly dry tone and avoidance of sentimentality remind me of Gershwin playing Gershwin, although his sonority gains dimension and limpid grace in the Mozart quintet. It’s easy to blot out the rather inelegant woodwind tuttis to focus on the piano player, but they compensate with a deft and sensitive performance of the Thuille Gavotte. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers convey more palpable room tone and mid-range information than Decca’s earlier Schulhoff remasterings, but the latter’s quieter surfaces yield slightly less harshness in the piano’s higher registers. Of course, you can adjust any sonic concerns with a trusty parametric equalizer. In a marketplace overrun by reissues of reissues and bootlegs of bootlegs, the unique historic and musical importance of this thoughtfully produced, long overdue release cannot be stressed enough.
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