Notes from the underground

My friend Dan Perttu has accused me of hyperbole, claiming that I tend to refer to things as extremes in one direction or the other. His favorite example is when I described a rather lengthy performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as taking so long that “the sun rose and set during the concert.” I acknowledge that there was a bit of exaggeration in that statement (though not as much as you might think – Ozawa was conducting), but it’s phrases such as those which give character to our language.

At the same time, another friend of mine, Duncan Meiklejohn, has noticed an increasing trend towards the blatant misuse of the word “literally” in our society. We need look no further than this very publication, the esteemed Williams Record, to find such transgressions. A careful reading of last week’s article on Men’s Rugby would reveal that while Ben McAnaney was distracting the officials with a “crushing blow” to Middlebury’s best offensive player, the rest of the team was slamming a gigantic door on the rest of the Middlebury squad. Literally.

You might see a connection in these two points. On one hand, I support the use of colorful, exaggerated language to describe just about anything. On the other, I argue fervently against the misuse of one particularly dull and overused word. Why is this? And why is any of this in my column? To the casual reader, it might look as though this is a terrific buildup to a review of “literally, the best CD I’ve ever heard.” But I have nothing of the sort to offer. Perhaps I’m merely setting you all up for such a claim, should it come in the future.

For now, all I have to offer is a fairly brief review of a decent CD, featuring the first three symphonies of Ervin Schulhoff (CD Sch725 6). Schulhoff is a strange figure in the annals of music history, with his output touching upon most of the main stylistic currents operating at the first three decades of the 20th Century. He may be even more of an interesting cultural figure in a larger sense; he fought in World War I, became a Marxist propagandist in the thirties, and died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp.

Certainly, his turbulent life had an effect on his music, which is marked by a “broad brushstroke” in terms of colors; his music does not hold much back, relying less on subtlety than force of will and an assurance that its composer has something to say, which is certainly the case. Schulhoff is a wacky, unpredictable composer, and even when his harmonic language tends towards the traditional, the underlying character of the music plants it firmly in the 20th Century.

The First Symphony is in three movements, each of which uses the traditional “Eastern-sounding” pentatonic scale to full effect. This is a bright, showy piece full of rich orchestral textures and driving rhythms. It’s really a fun piece, much more so than the other symphonies on this album, and is reminiscent of other really fine Schulhoff pieces I’ve heard in the past. It feels slightly campy, and sometimes I wish that he would cut down on the Orientalism, but on the whole it is an effective and enjoyable work. I like Schulhoff’s sense of structural proportions, and his climaxes and resolutions are very well crafted.

The Second Symphony is much more “Western” in its language and occasionally drags a bit. The highlight of this symphony is the Third Movement, “Scherzo alla jazz,” which doesn’t sound like jazz but nevertheless contains some really great moments. This symphony shows off Schulhoff’s eclectic nature – the rest of the piece besides the “jazz” Scherzo sounds like an updated version of an 18th Century symphony. It’s a decent work, but I’m not a big fan of neoclassicism. Schulhoff does some interesting things in the genre, but it gets somewhat dull at times. The Third Symphony is totally different in its character from the other two, tending towards the somber and macabre. Apparently, this work was influenced highly by Schulhoff’s Communist tendencies, and so the work builds towards the triumph of the proletariat at the end.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of music that is definitely marching somewhere, but it’s hard to see just where that is. The entire first movement is a gigantic, plodding march that builds in intensity for ten minutes without ever letting up. It’s extremely militaristic, reminding me of Shostakovich, but without the irony. The second movement has a lot of spunk, moving all over the place within its “Grave” marking. This is not the sweet, tender slow movement that one might expect after listening to the first two symphonies. The third movement picks up right where the first ends and marches to victory. Although this symphony is not on the level of Shostakovich’s great masterpieces, it has the same feeling of charged political fervor, and it’s strange to hear such a genuine Communist-loving work almost a decade after the end of the Cold War. Of course, this symphony was written well before the Cold War even began, so we can just say, “who knew?” I wouldn’t say that this is the best CD I’ve ever heard, but I can say that it certainly and literally isn’t the worst. Have a listen and decide for yourself. Literally.

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