Let us listen to some of Schulhoff's chamber music for today. This Naxos disc won the critic's choice award and it's a great reading of both quartets and the Five Pieces alike. I only wish Naxos had included Schulhoff's "String Quartet No. 0" in G major, Op. 25 from 1918; this could have been a near-perfect recording, at least in a completist sense-at just 51 minutes certainly there was room for
the early quartet. Quibble aside, the Israeli Aviv Quartet do these highly memorable quartets proud, the performances are just electric!
The "String Quartet No. 1" from 1924 was strongly admired when it was heard at an ISCM (International Society for New Music) concert the following year. It’s a terrific work, one that manages to fuse Bohemian and Slovakian folkloric elements with tensile Stravinsky-inspired qualities, and more besides. One hears the drones right from the first movement, and the feeling of attaca vitality is convulsive. Indeed, the mixture of powerfully accented rhythms and folk-dance imperatives reminds us that Stravinsky’s Concertino for string quartet had been written only four years before and its microcosmic example was surely influential on Schulhoff. The skittering, muted elements of the Allegretto open out into "malinconia grotesca" and it’s for each quartet to convey that spirit with as much intensity and accuracy as possible. The rural Slovak tune in the scherzo is dynamic and hugely effective, whereas the balance of the quartet then falls on the unexpected, slow final movement.
The dance patterned and brief affairs that make up the "Five Pieces for String Quartet" are robust and magnetic, a suite of dance movements which seem straightforward: a Viennese waltz, a serenade and a tango are among their number. But these works are not for the faint of heart; they are traditional dances viewed through the prism of Stravinsky or, perhaps, Schoenberg, and, like Ravel’s "La Valse" but with more of a bite, they are probably meant to some degree to be satirical. The waltz is almost unrecognizable as such in the opening bars, but soon becomes irresistible; the other dances are similarly gripping. The tarantella is a good example; relatively straightforward in form, the harmonies nevertheless make us feel as if we are in the musical equivalent of a house of mirrors.
The String Quartet No. 2 hasn’t received as much attention as the two companion works, something for which one can be grateful to the Aviv players. It has a theme and variations second movement, an "Allegro gajo"-Czech speakers will enjoy the resonance of the word-and a similarly compact four movement structure as the earlier work. However it is the more conventional. The melancholic viola statement that starts the slow theme has, unusually for the composer, a degree of pathos attached to it in the ensuing variation. There’s a Slavic dance in variation three, with a degree of syncopated jazz as well. The rusticities of the folkloric gajo movement are even more explicit than the "Alla Czeca" movement in the Five Pieces. And the ruminative start of the finale picks up on the uneasy tristesse of the variations before control is re-established and the work ends on a note of renewed vitality and positivism. I feel that it is safe to assign 'small masterpiece' status to both of these string quartets, but
that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you string quartet lovers think?
More Schulhoff sometime soon..I am not a fan of complete "overload" posting for any composer,
and happily there's many more Schulhoff gems to be explored...so stay tuned (well tuned..ahem)