Thursday, November 24, 2016

Bruno Monteiro Surveys Schulhoff’s Music for Violin and Piano for Brilliant Classics

Tomorrow will see the release of one of the latest original productions by Brilliant Classics, marking another departure from their past reputation as a “reprint” label. These original offerings have enabled audiences to appreciate many exciting new talents often venturing into unfamiliar repertoire. This new album is the second to feature the Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro, who has recorded all of the music for violin and piano composed by Erwin Schulhoff. This is his second project with Brilliant, which had released his album of the complete music for violin and piano by Karol Szymanowski in May of 2015; and Monteiro is performing again with Portuguese pianist João Paulo Santos.

Also again, this is repertoire that fits comfortably on a single compact disc. Indeed, the album has only four compositions, which are presented in chronological order. The first of these is a five-movement suite, which was the composition that Schulhoff cataloged as his Opus 1, although it was not published until long after his death in 2004. This is followed by his first sonata for violin and piano, composed in 1913. The second sonata, composed in 1927, is preceded by a sonata for solo violin, composed in 1923.

Schulhoff is one of the beneficiaries of violinist Daniel Hope’s interest in promoting the work of composers who perished in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. I was fortunate enough to listen to Hope perform the second sonata at a recital he gave with pianist Jeffrey Kahane on a visit to San Francisco. Hope has been particularly enthusiastic about this sonata, describing its Andante movement as “the most powerful and dramatic slow movement imaginable” (taken from the booklet notes by Ana Carvalho, translated into English by Frederick Gifford). Such language tends to reflect the enthusiastic gushing one would often encounter in declarations by Yehudi Menuhin; but, as I said, Hope’s promotion of this music reflected a broader mission.

The fact is that this album presents Schulhoff as a bit of a chameleon, trying out one style and then investigating another. Yet there is no sense that the chronological ordering of these pieces can be taken as a journey through which Schulhoff arrived at a “final voice” to express himself through the violin, with or without piano accompaniment. By the same count there is no sense of the sort of growth that we encounter when we review the violin music of, for example, Béla Bartók.

One of the reasons one comes away this this sense of “trying things out” is that none of the individual movements has very much duration. It would be unfair to say that Schulhoff excelled in exposition but never really got his head around development. However, it would seem that he could not hold his attention on a single idea for very long, preferring simply to let it play out rather than exploring deeper possibilities. Nevertheless, Schulhoff’s “sampling” of thematic material provides a survey of his own influences which can be fascinating on its own. For example, his teachers included both Max Reger and Claude Debussy. Schulhoff was also aware of the Second Viennese School and took interest in Arnold Schoenberg’s approach to working with all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Additional interests included his own Eastern European folk sources and jazz from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

In other words, if Schulhoff never managed to find a comfort zone in working with “deep structures,” there was prodigious diversity in what he could play with on the surface. While Hope’s enthusiasm may have been excessive, there is much to enjoy over the course of listening to the four compositions on this album. Indeed, one can listen to the whole thing in about 75 minutes without worrying about mind wandering very far. Schulhoff may have been a minor figure when compared with those composers from the first half of the twentieth century that dominate the history books, but he is still an engaging one. The Brilliant production team has done well to provide us with this sincerely refreshing account of this particular facet of Schulhoff’s repertoire.

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