Erwin Schulhoff: Violin Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Schulhoff
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Suite for violin and piano, Op. 1; Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 7; Solo Violin Sonata; Violin Sonata No. 2
PERFORMER: Tanja Becker-Bender (violin), Markus Becker (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67833

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During his relatively brief life (1894-1942) the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff dabbled in a bewilderingly wide range of styles including Dadaism, expressionism, neo-classicism, jazz and even Socialist Realism. The violin works featured here however reveal other preoccupations.

The early Suite of 1911, for instance, is steeped in a richly chromatic late-Romantic idiom which owes much to the work of his teacher Max Reger. Designated as the composer’s Op. 1, it’s an astonishingly fluent composition, boasting a sequence of extremely attractive dance movements including an elegantly stylised ‘Gavotte’, a quirky ‘Minuet’ and a haunting and memorable ‘Waltz’. Remarkably it remained unpublished until seven years ago, but undoubtedly deserves to be heard far more often. 

The First Sonata, composed two years later, is no less striking. Couched in a more harmonically complex musical language, the work shows Schulhoff’s growing admiration for Debussy and contains some wonderfully sensuous harmonies in the first movement.

With the Solo Violin Sonata and the Second Sonata, we move into completely different musical territory of the 1920s. Here Schulhoff demonstrates his avowedly modernist credentials, the ruggedly aggressive outer movements of the Solo Sonata being closely aligned to Bartók, while more sinister almost expressionistic colours are evident in the mournful Andante sostenuto. The Second Sonata, much the best-known work here, is also cast in the same mould, Bartókian exuberance combined with jazzy harmonies. 

The young German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender offers absolutely stunning playing throughout this warmly recorded disc. She makes light work of the formidable technical challenges in the opening Allegro con fuoco of the Solo Sonata and brings an unexpected sense of desolation to the ensuing Andante sostenuto. Her exemplary partnership with Markus Becker reaps equally enthralling musical rewards in the other works. The Suite is projected with great charm and elegance. In the First Sonata the duo revel in the music’s sensuality, but bring a sense of purpose and direction to its rather rhapsodic structure. 

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Perhaps most impressive of all is their performance of the Second Sonata. Here Becker-Bender and Becker face competition from the highly rated recording by Gidon Kremer and Oleg Maisenberg on Warner. Yet this new version fizzes with an even greater degree of propulsion and exuberance in the outer movements and projects darker undercurrents in the AndanteAltogether this is an outstanding release that can be confidently recommended.