Four years ago I raved about a 2CD set of some piano music by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) played by Margarete Babinsky Solo Piano Works. The present CD contains almost entirely different works -- the only duplication being the marvelous 'Five Picturesques' ('Fünf Vortragsstücke' 1919, whose German title I think actually means 'Instructional Pieces'; I don't know why on this disc they are called 'Picturesques') which were among the first of Schulhoff's works that incorporated his new love for American jazz (especially ragtime). Four of the movements are based on dance crazes of the time -- Foxtrot, Ragtime, One-Step, Maxixe -- and one of them, called 'In Futurum', is 1 1/2 minutes of silence (!), anticipating by forty years John Cage's notorious totally silent 4'33". Apparently Schulhoff had been influenced by the newly created Dada movement. Babinsky plays these brilliantly, but so does the present pianist, Caroline Weichert. It would be hard for me to choose a favorite.
Babinsky's set includes Schulhoff's 1st and 3rd Piano Sonatas, and happily this CD includes the 2nd Sonata (1926), a neoclassic four-movement work which alternates Ravelian understatement with flurries of ironic bitonalism. The gently melancholy third movement has some perhaps unconscious references to Ravel's 'Pavane for a Dead Princess'. There is a slyly humorous finale that ends abruptly.
Next comes 'Two Piano Pieces' ('Zwei Klavierstücke', 1936) whose individual titles are 'Optimistic Composition' and 'The Czech Workers' (Schulhoff was Czech). The latter has a trudging nature that made me think of clips of workers under the communist system, although the piece was written before his native country became a Soviet satellite, so perhaps my impression is erroneous. But those poor workers, as depicted in this piece, are clearly marching with heavy hearts; maybe it's an indictment of the Machine Age à la Chaplin's 'Modern Times'.
'Music for Piano in Four Parts' ('Musik für Klavier in vier Teilen', 1920) begins with a brief almost atonal 'Prelude' followed by a 'Theme and 10 Variations'. The theme is of deceptive simplicity and is put through marvelously wrought variations over the ten-minute length of the movement. It is followed without pause by the 'Scherzo' whose virtuosity is in the service of an initially carefree mood that is eventually superseded by a somber conclusion which in turn leads to the 'Nachspiel' ('Postlude') that continues that mood.
Finally we come to one of Schulhoff's most popular piano works, 'Esquisses de Jazz' ('Jazz Sketches', 1927) that, like the 'Four Picturesques', consists of popular dance forms: Rag, Boston, Tango, Blues, Charleston and Black Bottom. All six of these are utterly delightful. Somehow Schulhoff manages to couple early jazz harmonies and rhythms with European neoclassic gestures, a combination that charms and fascinates. Weichert is brilliant here, as throughout the whole CD.
An easy recommendation, especially for those who know and like some of Schulhoff's orchestral works. But I honestly think that anyone coming to Schulhoff's for the first time will be charmed as well.