Erwin Schulhoff


String Quartet No. 1,

String Quartet No. 2 &

Five pieces for String Quartet
Largely forgotten in the decades after his death, the wide-ranging output of the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff has come to much greater prominence over the last quarter-century. The music featured here dates from the mid-1920s, a productive period in which he forged a distinctive and highly personal musical style. Both the First String Quartet and the Five Pieces achieved a notable success at their premières, and all three works are among the most successful and enduring of Schulhoff's compositions.

Extract from Naxos web site

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Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942)
String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 • Five Pieces for String Quartet
Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8 June 1894 and showed musical ability from an early age. A musical career was decided upon on the recommendation of no less than Antonín Dvořák, and Schulhoff studied at the Prague Conservatory from 1904, followed by piano tuition in Vienna from 1906 then composition in Leipzig with Max Reger from 1908 and subsequently in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach from 1911. In the meantime he had laid the basis of a career as a pianist, while his efforts at composing were rewarded with the Mendelssohn Prize in 1918 for a piano sonata. His music up to the First World War had shown the expected influences from Brahms and Dvořák and, by way of Strauss, to Debussy and Scriabin, but four years in the Austrian army saw him adopt a more radical stance artistically and politically. In the next few years he absorbed the values of the Expressionism represented by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as the Dadaism espoused by Georg Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz was to find its way into much of Schulhoff's music from that period.
The later 1920s saw something of a rapprochement between these competing aesthetics, evident in a number of chamber works and concertos, as well as in the First Symphony, the ballet Ogelala, the 'jazz oratorio' HMS Royal Oak and an opera about Don Juan entitled Flammen (Flames) which was a failure at its Brno premiere in 1932. That year also saw Schulhoff's Second Symphony, its clear-cut neo-Classicism hinting at a new direction the political motivation of which was confirmed in the cantata Das Manifest, setting texts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Looking to the Soviet Union for a solution to the political and economic problems besetting Europe, he focussed on the symphony as the best medium with which to communicate his convictions. Six more of these were begun between 1935 and 1942, though the Seventh and Eighth remained unfinished. Having lived in Prague during most of the inter-war years, working as a pianist in theatre productions and radio broadcasts, Schulhoff found himself without any means of support after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia early in 1939. Having assumed Soviet citizenship, he was arrested before he could finalise his emigration to the Soviet Union, and was then deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died (most probably of tuberculosis) on 18 August 1942.
The works on this recording come from what is likely the most significant phase of Schulhoff's composing career. He was no stranger to the string quartet medium, having written a Divertimento in 1914 and a full-length string quartet some four years later. Nevertheless it was a String Sextet, written between 1920 and 1924, which made possible the stylistic synthesis of the chamber works that followed. Among these, the First String Quartet from 1924 ranks among his most successful works and was recognized as such at its première in Venice, given under the auspices of the International Society for New Music, by the Zika Quartet on 3 September 1925. Although Schoenberg is still prominent, elements of Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith are equally significant, drawn into a musical idiom both personal and distinctive in capturing the restless spirit of its time.
The first movement opens in decisive fashion with hectic interplay between the four instruments, the thematic material having a bracing folk-inflected quality. There is no development as such, making its sudden ending the more unexpected. The second movement focuses on an arching theme for the violin, against a backdrop of muted and pizzicato strings, that unfolds ruminatively until (around mid-point) the texture thins out noticeably. From here, a succession of disconnected references back to the initial theme effects a hesitant close. After a bracing initial section, the third movement indicates its debt to traditional Slovakian music with an earthy theme that insistently takes hold of the ensemble; the opening music then returning for a spirited conclusion. The finale is the longest movement, beginning with an eloquent interplay that brings several brief but intense solos in its wake. At length, a more sustained violin soliloquy brings the impassioned climax, the music gradually retreating into a more fragmented texture, as in the second movement, before the work draws to its introspective close.
Schulhoff had been encouraged to write a string quartet following the success of his Five Pieces for the medium, composed in 1923 and first heard in Salzburg on 8 August 1924. Although following the outlines of a Baroque dance suite, each of the pieces is a self-contained miniature that emulates a particular dance style and in a manner which unashamedly recalls the popular music of the era.
The first piece is a moody and wide-ranging waltz, made more so by its rhythmic displacement (this hardly being a waltz for dancing). The second piece is an equally oblique take on the serenade, its strummed undertow giving an ominous quality to music whose irony threatens to take on a more threatening guise at every turn. The third piece is a further instance of the composer's acknowledged debt to Czech folk-dance, its unbridled rhythmic drive exuding real energy for all its brevity. The fourth piece is a highly distinctive take on the tango (and has achieved popularity in arrangements that more closely reflect its models), though here the underlying rhythmic elasticity undercuts the music's sultry and provocative manner. The fifth piece looks to the tarantella in a headlong drive that continues unabated through to the decisive closing chords.
The Second String Quartet appeared in 1925 but seems not to have met with a success comparable to that of the earlier pieces, nor has it enjoyed the same degree of revival over more recent years. Yet it is stylistically no less assured a work, continuing the drive towards greater rhythmic and harmonic directness as makes one regret that Schulhoff completed no further works for the medium (a third quartet was begun later that decade but left in fragmentary form).
The first movement is a compact overall design whose coursing main theme is heatedly discussed in the central section before reasserting itself as the music heads to its animated close. The second movement is a sequence of variations on the eloquent theme announced on unaccompanied viola at the outset. The first variation brings the remaining three instruments musingly into play, while the second gradually intensifies the sombre discourse. The third variation breaks out into an excited dance over a loping pizzicato accompaniment, before the fourth restores a measure of calm with its sustained exploration of the theme's harmonic subtleties. The viola returns to round off proceedings with a tranquil recollection of the initial theme. The third movement is another of the composer's spirited takes on folk music, its rhythmic components exchanged in no uncertain terms between instruments as the music pursues its vigorous course before suddenly tapering off in an unexpectedly quiet ending. The finale commences with an introduction whose elegiac manner promptly gives way to a lively theme, given emphasis by its bracing rhythmic profile. This reaches a forceful climax, after which the elegiac music re-emerges—only for its lively successor to take hold again in the brusque closing bars.

Richard Whitehouse


Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, September 2010
The language of the music is like a more companionable Bartok. The movements are brief, yet their material never sounds underdeveloped. Like Bartok, Schulhoff draws an amazing wealth of tone colors from a string quartet. In Quartet 1, the music uses folk tunes with small intervallic ranges. Its second movement, “con malincolia grotesca”, is ghostly and fragmented. The last movement is more sustained, with its feeling of anticipation adding further interest. Quartet 2 is more turbulent. In its II some pages use enough multiple stops to suggest re-scoring the music for a string orchestra. The probing introduction to I returns at the end as a phantom reminiscence.

The Five Pieces are brief evocations of dance forms, carried through with no end of subtle humor. The players evince complete conviction in the worth of the music. The articulation and phrasing are excellent, with superb dynamic control, from the most whispery ppp to the strongest tutti accents. Their warmth of tone also contributes greatly to the likability of this music. For these performances, the Aviv Quartet deserves to have its name reversed.


Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, September 2010
Naxos produces a lot of discs by forgotten composers or neglected works by major names...Yet for some reason I was drawn to request this CD, and am I ever glad I did.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942) had a sad life and career. It started out well; at the age of 10 he was recommended by Dvořák to study piano at the Prague Conservatory and then composition beginning at age 14 with Max Reger and Fritz Steinbach. Influenced at first by these composers, his music gained a certain amount of success, but after World War I he gravitated toward the Expressionism of the Second Vienna School and the Dadaistic influence of Georg Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz seeped into Schulhoff’s own work. In the early 1930s he changed his style again to neoclassicism, and turned to Soviet communism as what he perceived as a more benevolent solution to society’s ills than fascism or national socialism. This new political motivation led him to compose pieces with a definite Marxist slant. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in early 1939 Schulhoff, who had taken Soviet citizenship, was branded an enemy of the state and deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, where he died of tuberculosis in August 1942.

These string works from the mid 1920s represent Schulhoff’s jazz-and-expressionist period. They are bitonal in many places but never actually atonal, certainly not including any 12-tone rows. Harmonies are astringent but not too far outside the tonal system. The music is highly rhythmic, reflecting both the influence of jazz and Czech folk music, particularly the latter. The music is compact and tightly organized, his melodies brief and often angular, the interplay of instruments revealing complex counterpoint. It’s hard to believe they were considered highly radical works in their day; compared to what we have now, as well as to the far more astringent music of his Hungarian counterpart Béla Bartók, Schulhoff is downright accessible.

The Aviv Quartet, new to me, plays with excellent tone, rhythmic acuity, energy, and grace. It’s obvious that they have learned these pieces so well that they have internalized them...Naxos’s sound is crisp and clear, so that one can hear every nuance without putting reverberant goo between the performers and the listener.


Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2010
…this repertoire these more warmly recorded traversals are well played and communicative, and there is the advantage of the Second Quartet…


Gapplegate Music Review, May 2010
If you are not familiar with the music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), you aren’t alone. There are reasons for that. A Czech would-be national whose left-leaning politics ended him up in a Nazi concentration camp, where he died in 1942, he was one of those whose career and very life were essentially deconstructed by the tragic and evil circumstances of those horrible times.

But lucky for us all his music survives and seems to be undergoing a resurgence. A terrific place to start is with the release at hand, an excellent Naxos recording of his String Quartets. This is music with an Eastern European, Slavic, Semitic (?) sound to it. It’s very lovely, very rhythmic in parts, very melodically interesting and very well put-together. Think of the quartets of Janacek and Bartok (and Dvorak before them), then forget all of that because Schulhoff doesn’t channel their music in any direct way. He is simply working out of a musical mind-set that he in part shares with these three great composers. (Like Kafka and Musil, for a literary parallel). And in my humble opinion, Schulhoff’s Quartets hold their own in such illustrious company.

But I might have missed the impact of this music if it wasn’t for the exceptional performances of the Aviv Quartet. They are just fabulous. They have the Slavic-Semitic brio in full abundance, which is exactly what these quartets need. The Aviv Quartet play with great energy, passion, fire and rhythmic dash. Just beautiful!

To combine all of this and the peanuts Naxos asks you to pay to get a copy, well, I certainly would not hesitate to respectfully compel you to go and grab this one. In fact, here we are in May, but so far without hesitation this release is MY SLEEPER OF THE YEAR. Set your farmer’s alarm clock for early and go out and get a copy before they all disappear! Seriously though, I am enchanted with this release. And I am quite surprised, because I had no idea that Schulhoff’s music was this good.


Uncle Dave Lewis, May 2010
On this Naxos release, the Canadian-Israeli Aviv Quartet essays the better part of Erwin Schulhoff’s output for string quartet. Schulhoff no longer needs introduction; this disc contains all of his string quartet music save the 1918 String Quartet in G, Op. 25, sometimes called “Quartet No. 0.” The two numbered quartets and his Five Pieces date very closely together, composed from 1923–1925, and have a strong sense of continuity as a group though also enough variety to keep a program such as this interesting from start to finish. This has not been lost on ensembles, and this combination of pieces has appeared on CD no less than five times already. What Aviv Quartet has to offer is a very crisp and energetic reading of all of the music, elements that are essential as the rhythmic dynamics of Schulhoff’s chamber compositions and the relation to dance music popular in Europe during the 1920s—tango, fox trot, jazz-derived, and what have you—are as important to the profile of this music as the allusions to traditional Czech and Slovenian music. If you go into Schulhoff thinking that it’s going to be like Bartók, Martinů, or Janáček, you’re in for a surprise. One of the reasons there is so much excitement about Schulhoff in Europe is that he is obviously a master who found his own direction among the 1920s modernists and followed it with consistency and completely equipped technically; we just simply missed him when the catalog of canonical modernists was drawn up in the postwar period. Aviv Quartet have obviously made a thoroughgoing study of this repertoire and play it as if they’d known it always; how that compares to some of the already very viable options—such as the Petersen Quartet’s recording for Capriccio or the Lockenhaus gang on Philips—is hard to say. Nevertheless, this Naxos recording is everything it ought to be, and given that Naxos is still budget priced in comparison to most other options, this might become the pick to click for the many who have not found themselves in the company of Schulhoff’s quartet literature just yet. And if you are among those who haven’t experienced this music, you should; if you appreciate the quartet literature of Bartók, Martinů, or Janáček, then there is no way this will fail to please.


Jed Distler, April 2010
I don’t think that Erwin Schulhoff wrote a dull note in his tragically brief life (he died in 1942 in a Nazi prison camp), and his string quartet output proves this beyond question. The composer took to the medium like a duck to water, and these works from his productive early period are packed with melodic humor and ingenious textural variety achieved through a similar economy of means to Shostakovich’s middle quartets. What is more, Schulhoff never takes longer than necessary to say what he needs to say.

The Aviv Quartet may not posesses the lightness and conversational demeanor that give the Kocian Quartet’s Supraphon recordings an idiomatic edge, yet the Aviv’s glitch-free technical sheen and penchant for slower tempos allows inner voices more prominence in thicker passages, such as in the First quartet’s Allegro giocoso movement. Similarly, the dances so affectionately ribbed in the 1923 Five Pieces benefit from the Kocian Quartet’s more characterfully inflected phrasing, yet the Aviv group’s stronger contouring of the pizzicato/arco alterations in the Tarantella and in the Second quartet’s Allegro gajo will cause listeners to sit up and take notice.

Pressed to choose, I’d recommend the Kocian first, if only because they also include Schulhoff’s delightful String Quartet No. 0. However, Naxos’ modest cost, vividly detailed sonics, and excellent annotations enhance the Aviv Quartet’s polished and serious-minded achievement. Well worth hearing.


David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010
Murdered in a Second World War concentration camp, the Czech-born, Erwin Schulhoff, did not live long enough to promote music that had showed a composer of so much promise. Born in 1894 he had been a pupil of Max Reger before setting out on a career as pianist and composer. By the time he wrote the First String Quartet, he had already passed through three milestones, the first following in long established musical traditions; a second flirted with the Second Viennese School, and was now in a neo-Classic mode. Yet I would urge you to forget biographical details and hear a score of fresh, interesting and often of robust content. We even go into a Slovakian folk-music mood in the third movement, and when I compare this to Bartók’s great quartet masterpieces, I would have no hesitation in placing them on much the same level of inspiration. They offer the performers a platform to demonstrate technical excellence, the North American-based Aviv Quartet, grasping it with outgoing enthusiasm. Unusually the quartet ends with an Andante that concludes in quiet peace. The Second, from the following year, 1925, is similar in structure and mode—the second movement cast in a multi-coloured Theme and Variations—the finale opening as as andante, but unlike the first quartet ending in exhilaration. The Five Pieces completed two years earlier are in dance tempo, and are delightful. All of the works have been recorded previously, but this must set a new benchmark, the performances superb in every aspect, with intonation precise and the detail they reveal so fascinating. The recording quality is fabulous.


Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, October 2009
Erwin Schulhoff’s music for string quartet is built on forceful rhythms and startling juxtapositions of material; it dances, yes, but with fiery intensity and rough humor. His style is the polar opposite of works like Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet or Borodin’s Second; in the most famous moments of those quartets, the four players sing together with one voice, melodies flowing naturally along in seamless harmony. Schulhoff’s model is a radically different one: here the interplay between instruments sounds not like a romance but like a brilliantly choreographed action-film fight scene, the players darting and weaving about each other, poised and ready to strike. 

The First String Quartet comprises three studies in rhythm followed by an agonized slow movement. The first movement is jaunty and refreshingly melodic, with echoes of Stravinsky in an ebullient mood. The second movement is more menacing, the central section’s thematic material given slithering accompaniment, but it is the slow movement, which serves as the quartet’s finale, that acts as this work’s emotional core. 

Of the three works on the disc, the First Quartet was most successful during Schulhoff’s lifetime, and its appeal is immediate. This is an engaging and rewarding piece waiting for a concert-hall revival, and, since it is a scant seventeen minutes, the quartet could safely be squeezed onto many a recital program. 

The Five Pieces are 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 magnetic. 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 Second String Quartet, composed just a year after the First in 1925, is arguably a masterpiece. The first movement finds Schulhoff’s tense style slightly matured, and the slow theme and variations begin with a beautiful viola solo. The highlight of the variations is an amiable folksy dance beginning at roughly the three-minute mark; another intriguing dance, with the unique marking “Allegro gajo,” follows in the third movement, but the finale is a fierce, very modern battle with some of the most thrilling unison playing on the album. 

Fortunately for Schulhoff’s legacy, these are terrific performances. The Aviv Quartet have been playing together for a decade now, since they inaugurated their career amid a flurry of international competition victories in 1999, and they sound simply fantastic on this disc. The playing is electric; no position is a weak link. Schulhoff’s music for string quartet has been assembled on another disc, a 1994 Capriccio release, but this Naxos album is more widely available, and at half the price. Neither represents the complete quartet music (a Divertimento has gone unrecorded), but only completists will really be bothered by this quibble. 

A terrific introduction to Schulhoff’s chamber music, then, although there are other works (like the surprising Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass) which are more immediately appealing, and although other albums may simply have more music (this one is barely fifty minutes long). But this recording will be an eye-opener for those who prefer their string quartets to be perfume-soaked romantic treasures, and a treasure for admirers of modern chamber music. A good way to expand one’s horizons.