Schulhoff, Popov: String quartets (QBT)

A Baedeker tour of Europe’s miseries, amidst the outrage in Ukraine

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Nothing navigates the edge of tension more graphically than a string quartet. Two works by composers lost in the political mists of eastern Europe deliver a profound resonance, amidst the horrors of Russia’s latest outrage in Ukraine.

Erwin Schulhoff was a committed Communist who could not get a hearing in 1920s Germany. He returned to his home town Prague, working as a pianist at state radio and writing pieces that are riven with echoes of jazz, ballroom dancing and melancholy. When the Nazis marched in, he was shunted off to a concentration camp, where he died in 1942, at the age of 48.

Here and there, with gallows irony, he quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

His five pieces for string quartet, dated 1923, convey the world-weariness of Ravel’s La Valse, along with a persistent edge of erotic temptation and conversational provocation. They would have been called charming at the time, were it not for the smoky undercurrent of menace.

Gavriil Popov’s first symphony was banned by Stalin after its first performance in 1935, condemned as anti-people art for its unredeemed pessimism. Popov turned to alcohol for comfort but carried on writing symphonies, hoping to curry favour with such titles as Honour to the Motherland and Honour to our Party. He was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946 but was promptly banned again.

Desperate for a hearing, he turned his fifth symphony into a 1951 string quartet, economising on scale but not on spartan melancholy. Think Kurt Weill meets Anton von Webern and you’ll get a sense of his textures. Here and there, with gallows irony, he quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

These two rarities from the fringes of string quartet consciousness are dusted off and exquisitely played by the Quartet Berlin-Tokyo, a group of two Japanese, a Czech and a Russian. This is a Baedeker tour of Europe’s miseries, full of ideas and a splash or two of hope.

It’s different and, at once, just what you’d expect.

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