Caught up in the charms of Ervin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet – as played by the Petersen Quartet at the Doheny Mansion last week in one of the Da Camera Society’s “Chamber Music and Historic Sites” concerts – I found it was hard to avoid shedding a tear for what might have been. Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894; 48 years later he died at Nazi hands in a prison camp at Wuelzburg, where he had been sent for the double crime of being Jewish and communist. It might be amusing sometime – might be, I said – to hear his cantata that sets the entire text of the Marx/Engels Communist Manifesto, composed in 1932 but not performed until 30 years later.
My tattered 1985 Schwann Catalog lists a single work of Schulhoff’s; the current Schwann lists 49, many in multiple versions. Six ensembles, the Petersen among them, have recorded the First Quartet. We now have enough of his music to intuit a prototype of a talented composer between world wars, lured from his provincial milieu to the cultural hurly-burly in Germany’s major cities, sampling the new currents that swirled through music at the time – jazz, Africa-inspired percussion, Schoenberg’s harmonic anarchies – and pondering where they might lead. The Jewish Kurt Weill and Berthold Goldschmidt, and dozens of others, fit that prototype, as did the Catholic Ernst Krenek and the Protestant Paul Hindemith, among the survivors, along with the others whose bones abide in Nazidom’s poisoned soil. The London Records project to rescue and restore some of this repertory in its “Entartete (Degenerate) Musik” series has been enormously valuable. Now, I hear, it has been discontinued.
Schulhoff’s First Quartet dates from 1924 and runs about 20 minutes: three perky, fast movements and a concluding Andante as long as the others together. The composer makes no secret of his origins. Bohemian rhythms abound, with the stomping on the second beat that we know so well from Dvorak; so does that peculiarly Slavic harmonic eagerness that won’t let you escape even if you want to. Now and then Schulhoff reaches out to shake hands with Bela Bartok, a dozen years his senior; other moments suggest that their composer has heard an American jazz band or two. The finale, rich-textured and profound, rouses the ghost of Mahler, close behind and smiling his approval. This is all wonderful – arguably great – music. Most of all, it can stand by itself as a document, evidence that there was once a thriving culture in a thriving place. Its power to stir the imagination toward what might have been – the denied and potentially glorious repertory from a generation of composers uprooted, persecuted and murdered – is its most potent impact.
A splendid stewpot of artistic styles and outlook made up the Berlin scene from 1920 until the Reichstag burning: a thriving opera house under a mandate to produce contemporary works (yo, Peter Hemmings!); a National Radio underwriting new scores by Hindemith and Weill, with texts by Bertolt Brecht and Georg Kaiser; political cabarets teeming with mordant and important words and music. The striking thing about Berlin’s music in its heyday is its feverish, eclectic activity, comparable to Vienna in Beethoven’s time or Debussy’s Paris. What Germany then lost, however, is exactly what makes a great stew more than just a collection of ingredients. No sooner had a whole generation of new arrivals created their brave new world of music than they were gone, driven out of a country that, for the lifetime of its new regime, was to subsist on the feeble academism of a Hans Pfitzner and the over-the-hill Richard Strauss and the goose-stepping pseudo-archaisms of Carl Orff.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that an untimely death in a concentration camp, or survival in a dangerous and hostile milieu, automatically confers greatness. The London “Entartete” series advanced quite a lot of proof to the contrary: for example, that the hapless Franz Schreker, for all his prolific operatic output, comes over as a pale Richard Strauss clone; that Krenek’s famous Jonny spielt auf is not so much a jazz opera as an overstuffed Romantic essay with a few jazzy moments as overlay. For its revelations of the greatness of Berthold Goldschmidt (who died in 1996, at 93) and Ervin Schulhoff, and the extraordinary if neglected Symphony No. 2 of Krenek, the series has been important, the sort of project that justifies the existence of the record industry even in these days of insane overproduction. This is not to promise that London won’t take the whole issue off the market day after tomorrow. That’s the way it runs.
The Petersens had to perform last week with a substitute violist; if I hadn’t known this, I still would have had no trouble in regarding them as a splendidly unified, spirited young (30-ish) group. Their program began with Haydn, not Papa but Baby, one of the Opus 1 quartets already teeming with tricks and original beauties. At the end came Beethoven’s Opus 132, vast, rawboned and mysterious. The entire program had to do with daring and modernness, a rewarding mix. Afterward, as usual, hostess/producer MaryAnn Bonino presided over a splendid catered spread, with wine to match. The world is not so bad, after all.
Of the triumph Britain’s Mark Wigglesworth may have enjoyed on his last Music Center visit (“. . . taut, nicely controlled!” -Rich, L.A. Weekly), none remained on his latest stint with the Philharmonic. The program should have been a pushover: Brahms at his friendliest, Beethoven at his most Beethovenian, with a pianist in the Brahms Second Concerto renowned for his excellence. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony seemed to crash its way into Mrs. Chandler’s playhouse in the same armored tanks that Wigglesworth had used for the Shostakovich Seventh in 1995. In the Seventh, Beethoven scores his horns higher than in any other of his symphonies; if you have the old Toscanini/N.Y. Philharmonic recording, you know how thrilling those high E’s can be. Under Wigglesworth, they merely out-screeched everyone else; the timpani (properly played with hard sticks) drowned out winds and strings. He’s cute, all right, this diminutive Brit with the bouncy arm movements that look like the way record collectors contort themselves in front of the stereo. The word I took away last Thursday night was bratty; at 33, Mark Wigglesworth might consider giving up the greasy kid stuff in favor of a more responsible kind of musicality.
The usually excellent Stephen Kovacevich delivered a much-under-par account of Brahms’ Second Concerto, out of touch with the orchestra and, even worse, out of touch with a fair number of the notes. I’ve known Kovacevich (as Stephen Bishop) since when, at 17, he told me he was going to become the world’s greatest pianist. I’ve been pleased at how close he’s come. His problems last Thursday stemmed, I’m willing to swear, from a breakdown of communication with the conductor, a lapse understandable and forgettable.