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Erwin Schulhoff and the Piano Concerto

How many piano concertos that were composed in the 20th century do we actually know? So many years of repertoire and always there is something new and fresh that you discover. My discovery of Erwin Schulhoff's music in general and the piano concerti in particular is a real revelation.

Schulhoff composed in his short life three wonderful piano concertos , two of them I had the privilege to perform. When we approach his upcoming birthday, on June 8 , I am going to perform next week his first piano concerto with the Rishon Lezion Symphony, and very excited about the fact that Schulhoff's music is entering into the standard repertoire, along with Ravel, Bartok and Prokoffiev.

Erwin Schulhoff  belonged  to a number of jewish composers who can be defined as "the lost generation"  .  He was one of the brightest figures in the generation of jewish European musicians whose successful careers were prematurely terminated by the rise of the  Nazi Regime in Germany and whose works have been rarely noted or performed.

Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8 June 1894. Thanks to a letter of recommendation by Antonín Dvorák, he was accepted as a piano pupil at the Prague Conservatory at the early age of ten. He continued his studies in 1906 in Vienna (with Willy Thern), in 1908 in Leipzig (piano with Robert Teichmüller, music theory with Stephan Krehl and composition with Max Reger) and in 1911 in Cologne (with Lazzaro Uzielli, Carl Friedberg, Franz Bölsche, Ewald Sträßer and Fritz Steinbach).

In 1913 he went to Paris and took a few  lessons with Debussy , His first piano concerto was composed right after his visit. This beautiful neo-classis piece combines influences of other composers that Schulhoff adored, such as Skryabine and Richard Strauss, along with original and fresh approach. 

This is the recording from the concert with my dear late friend, maestro  Israel Yinon , that suggested me to perform this wonderful concerto. The concert was in Jerusalem a few years ago. Yinon dedicated his concert career to discover and perform, as well to record music of "The lost generation" jewish composers.

The first movement is composed in the classical concerto style, but with a free manner writing and combines very impressive cadenza towards the end. The balance between the soloist and the orchestra is well-planned, and the sonority of  the symphony orchestra is fresh and never heavy, the connection to tonality is always existing, along with "jazzy" and experimental  harmonies- a real way of entering the 20th century without losing the tradition. 

The Short second movement Langsam und getragen with the beautiful Viola solo recalls chamber music and elements of intimate moments and tragic prediction of the future, and immediately followed by the bright , virtuoso Rondo.

Schulhoff's career as pianist, composer and arranger was emerging, and his musical style had been constantly changing - His love for Jazz, the dance idiom, his admiration for Alban Berg and his involvement with the Dada group had led him to compose in different styles.

His second piano concerto from 1923 "with a small orchestra" represents a free style of form and sounds, very much like free jazz idiom with contemporary explorations- premature associations of minimalism along with great original textures.  Here is a wonderful recording of Christina Ortiz.

The double concerto for piano, flute and string orchestra (with 2 horns!) that was composed in 1927 , when Schulhoff was 35 years old, represents the nostalgia of the concerto grosso style, along with the new spirits. I performed this piece twice already with excellent flute players- a chamber music and a concerto, the best combination.

Schulhoff's brilliant career  faced  difficulties In the 1930s: because of his Jewish descent and his radical politics, he and his works were labelled degenerate and blacklisted by the Nazi regime. He could no longer give recitals in Germany, nor could his works be performed publicly.His Communist sympathies, which became increasingly evident in his works, also brought him trouble in Czechoslovakia.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he had to perform under a pseudonym. In 1941, the Soviet Union approved his petition for citizenship, but he was arrested and imprisoned before he could leave Czechoslovakia.In June 1941, Schulhoff was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp, near Weißenburg, Bavaria. He died there on 18 August 1942 from tuberculosis.

His output was immense: Except the conerti he composed three piano sonatas and many solo piano pieces.

In my recent CD on Centaur I decided to bring as many styles as possible: From the jazzy dances of the suite and partita, throughout the darkness and intimacy of the Inventions and to the eclectic side in The third Sonata.

A dream that will maybe come true one day: To record all three piano concerti.  Schulhoff certainly deserves it, as he definitely stands out as the most important jewish figure of the twentieth century. 


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