ERWIN SCHULHOFF – String Quartet No. 1

Erwin Schulhoff was an Early Modern Czech composer [1894-1942] who wrote two string quartets as well as a Quartet ‘0’. More on that one later. According to Wiki ‘He was one of the figures in the generation of European musicians whose successful careers were prematurely terminated by the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany …’, and ‘who died in a concentration camp, probably of tuberculosis.’

The First Quartet, in four movements, has a torrid opening with a strong forward propulsion, the violins being exceptionally powerful. Most times, melody gives way to rhythm. A slight drop in intensity allows the first violin to moderate the tempo. The opening melody is repeated, almost mocking itself as it plays it much faster than previously, and the composer inserts atonal phrases freely into the music. This brief movement ends on a chord.

Gentle, swirling melodies introduce the next movement. There are pizzicato chords within the accompaniment and the first violin begins to strut, before breaking into a solo section. A brief pause is followed by a soft scurrying mood where the violin soars above the ensemble. The backing is very soft and the violin works a melody that eventually descends in range and stops. Now another soft, but hectic ensemble phase is heard. A further pause brings about a mostly violin-led passage. The strange backing reappears, again softly, and the violin skims over it. The violin pauses but the accompaniment continues until near the end; it also stops. The movement concludes with the violin playing a short solo section with trills, and a brief final flourish.

The next movement is sprightly and the melodies are engaging. Again, rhythm predominates over melody. The introduction complete, the cello sets up an ostinato and the violins a melody similar to Ravel’s Bolero. A sudden pause initiates a banjo-like, percussive rhythm. The violin takes up with a new melody and the tempo accelerates; all the while the violin plays at a breakneck tempo. Interjections occur and the violin is virtuosic. A very busy cello now returns to the ostinato. The tempo is brisk and the violins duel their way to a sharp ending.

The fourth movement, which is by far the longest, commences with a gently, pulsing background while the two violins drift across the surface. The backing becomes so soft as to be virtually inaudible, but it draws the violins into an abstract measured duel. One of the violins is like a soprano voice, so pure is the tone. Now a solo violin expresses a serious melody, while the ensemble offer up a drone which fades to a silence. A violin takes over, even it is very soft. Occasional sounds emanate from the ensemble. The violin eventually increases the volume and the cello and viola provide sharp interjections. This is followed by a feeling similar to the opening, which is extended for some time. The violin meanders with no melodic development, now it is just the pulsating backing. It fades quietly to a conclusion.

This is a mystifying work. It was written in 1924 and apparently was well received in a 1928 performance. However, I find it to be a very abstract piece. Not the abstraction of a Schoenberg, but in more of an Impressionistic manner. There are few discernible melodies and the dynamics can be very soft at various places in the work. Its rhythmic passages are also at a consistently low dynamic.

The review CD, performed by the Aviv Quartet, also contains String Quartet No. 2 and Five Short Pieces. It does not contain Quartet ‘0’, which was available by the Kocian Quartet but seems to have disappeared. The Aviv Quartet is on Spotify and there are several quartets on YouTube. Quartet ‘0’ is available at earsense as Opus 25, along with Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. There is also an earlier divertimento there.

Listenability: Fascinating early 1920s work.


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