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Ensō Revives Schulhoff, Weather Attacks Schmidt


Maureen Nelson, violin; John Marcus, violin II; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello (file photo)
Maureen Nelson, violin; John Marcus, violin II; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello (file photo)

Sunday afternoon, at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, the Ensō Quartet brought vividly to life the Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff, music , and with pianist Frederic Chiu, the Enso also performed the slithery Quintet for Strings and Piano Left Hand by Franz Schmidt, while a torrential downpour tried to drown them out.

Maverick Concerts Music Director Alexander Platt has put together a season-long commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. This is difficult at a chamber music festival, since Strauss wrote little chamber music. The concert of July 13th was part of the “World of Richard Strauss” series, and did its best to bring us into Strauss’s world.

Mozart, a composer whose aesthetic seems to me about as far removed from Strauss as possible, was nevertheless Strauss’s favorite composer. Strauss was famous for his Mozart conducting and he even left behind some substantial examples on recordings. So it made sense to open Sunday’s program with Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, K. 493. Pianist Frederic Chiu made a considerate collaborator with members of the Ensō String Quartet, and two of the three movements were quite successful, with sensitive, lyrical playing, although sometimes the strings seemed a bit reticent. However, all hell broke loose in the finale, Mozart’s Allegretto played at a tempo that felt more like Presto and some moments slammed out as though the performers were mad at the music. Strange.

The only real Strauss on the program was the Scherzo from his String Quartet in A, composed when Strauss was a teenager. It was brief and entertaining. The next work on the program was introduced as the antithesis of Strauss, a pretty good description of Erwin Schulhoff’s 1924 Five Pieces for String Quartet. All but the Serenade are based on dance forms, treated with the composer’s typical imagination and inventiveness. The style is closer to 1920s Hindemith than anything else familiar, but Schulhoff’s individuality is powerful. The ensemble played with the security and involvement we would have expected in a regular repertory item–which this music should be−and the wild power of the Alla Czeka was almost scary. The audience greeted this unfamiliar music with a standing ovation, a common occurrence at Maverick but not usually at intermission.

Frederic Chiu (file photo)
Frederic Chiu (file photo)

The second half of the program was occupied by the Quintet for Strings and Piano Left Hand by Franz Schmidt, who had direct connections with Strauss. He played cello at the Vienna Court Opera, and Strauss favored him over the regular principal cellist. As a composer, Schmidt shows much influence of Strauss. He is not the composer who irritates me the most. That dishonor belongs to Max Reger. But Schmidt can run him a close second, and for much the same reason: his slithery chromatic style, which sounds to me as though the composer had simply decided to make as many changes of key as possible. Or maybe his published paid him by the modulation. The end result sounds to me as though the composer was trying to torture the tonal system to death. I much prefer Schoenberg, who simply abolished it.

Frederic Chiu obviously doesn’t agree with me. Eight years ago at Maverick he played the Schmidt work in its adaptation by Friedrich Wührer for piano two hands. Now he has discovered the delights of the original version, written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Nature battled the music. A torrential downpour began as the first movement started, and it continued until after the finale ended almost 40 minutes later. The experience was like listening to a set of particularly noisy 78s. As far as I could tell, the performance was excellent. The audience greeted it with cheers. I doubt that I’ll ever hear it played better. I hope not.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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