Art of Time Ensemble At the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, on Monday
The mute, tiny clue that hides in the dates for Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) only finds its true significance when we realize that the composer had six million companions in death, and that his 1942 passing was neither accidental nor natural. Schulhoff perished along with many other fine artists in a Nazi camp, forgotten for almost half a century. However, the musicians who died in the camps are finally getting the attention they deserve, and on Monday night, pianist Andrew Burashko's Art of Time Ensemble devoted an entire evening to the works of Schulhoff, a fascinating figure of the early 20th century.
Schulhoff came of musical age at a time when European art music was exploding in multiple directions simultaneously, and he seems to have been influenced by all of the new schools without ever committing definitively to any one of them. He was fascinated and influenced by the new rhythms of jazz, by the cool neo-classicism of Stravinsky, and by the overt emotional expressionism of his friends in the Second Viennese School. And all three Schulhoffs were in evidence on Monday in a program full of surprises, fine performances and at least one transcendental moment of great beauty.
The jazzy Schulhoff was represented by two pieces, his Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and piano and his Five Jazz Études for solo piano. Phil Dwyer made fine work of the sonata, an interesting piece that truly imbibed its jazzy references without lapsing into unintentional parody one one hand or losing a sense of European art music's formal structure on the other. Many European composers were influenced by jazz in the twenties, but Schulhoff is one of the few who could turn the Afro-American rhythms to his own purposes. Dwyer played the work with real feeling and understanding, and Barashko's accompaniment was solid and clear. The Five Jazz Études were equally fascinating, with Barashko handling both their musical and technical demands with ease.
Fine performances were also the order of the day as Joel Quarrington, Stephen Dann and Susan Heoppner performed Schulhoff's concertino for double bass, viola and flute. This is a piece more neo-classic, with generous helpings of Bohemian folk tunes, effective, if a bit long-winded.
But the revelation of the evening was the Schulhoff String Sextet, a work he wrote before he was 30 that was nonetheless staggering in its maturity, its sonorities, its fine musical ideas and its persistent demands on its performers. It deserves to stand with the finest chamber works of the century. Each of its four movements contained moments of great beauty and original music making. The highlight of the piece, however, comes right at the end, when the first cello intones a deep, held note, pianissimo, that is gently passed from one instrument to the other, as though the last sacred word on Earth was being handed from generation to generation, to prevent the light of the universe from being extinguished. The piece was superbly performed by Mark Fewer, Stephen Sitarski, Stephen Dann, Rennie Regehr, Thomas Wiebe and David Hetherington.
Kudos to Art of Time for both a fine concert and a fine idea, in redeeming the work of a voice, unnaturally stilled, that nonetheless contains much for us to hear and understand.