Thursday 11 March 2021

Modern Czech Masters: flute sonatas by Jindřich Feld, Jan Novák, Erwin Schulhoff and Bohuslav Martinů

Modern Czech Masters - Feld, Novák, Schulhoff, Martinů; Orlando Cela, David Gillard; Orpheus Classical

Modern Czech Masters
- Feld, Novák, Schulhoff, Martinů; Orlando Cela, David Gilliland; Orpheus Classical

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 March 2021 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Four flute sonatas showcasing the diversity of Czech music in the 20th century

When it comes to Czech chamber music it can seem as if there is a clear line in the 19th century moving from Václav Jindřich Veit to Bedřich Smetana to Antonín Dvořák to Leoš Janáček , during which time a particular sense of Czech musical style developed. Of course, it is not quite as simple as this, and when we get to the 20th century things get even more complicated with competing European musical styles and the development of modernism, the complexities of politics as a result of seismic shifts following each of the world wars and the tragic deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

This disc from American duo, Orlando Cela (flute) and David Gilliland (piano) on Orpheus Classical presents us with four diverse works for flute and piano under the title Modern Czech Masters. There are four names here, Jindřich Feld, Jan Novák, Erwin Schulhoff and Bohuslav Martinů, two known and two relatively unknown.

The four sonatas on the disc also vary in their exposure in the catalogue, that of Martinů is relatively well known, that of Schulhoff is not unknown whilst those of Feld and Novák seem to be relatively unexplored. But also, by grouping the four composers together by nationality the disc tempts us into seeing whether we can detect links and influences between them. Does Martinů, writing a flute sonata in the 1950s still give us a continuity of linkage back to that line of Bohemian and Moravian composers?

The disc opens with Jindřich Feld's Sonata for Flute. Born in 1925, Feld studied in Prague and went on to become a prolific composer and his writing for the flute includes a Flute Concerto for Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1954 and the Sonata for Flute was dedicated to Rampal in 1957. It is a three movement work, two busy outer movements framing a more serious, melancholy middle movement. We can perhaps detect Czech influence in the rhythmic patters and maybe the influence of Bartok, but for me the abiding sound-world is the neo-classical writing of Paul Hindemith. The flute writing is virtuosic without being overly showy, the perky outer movements both feature very, very busy flute writing whilst the middle movement with its use of strikingly dramatic piano chords has the flute playing long-breathed phrases.

Next comes Jan Novák's Sonata super 'Hoson zes ....', originally written for violin and piano in 1981 but quickly adapted by the composer for flute and piano. Novák was four years older than Feld, and studied at Brno Conservatory. He was very active in the 1960s and wrote music for a number of Czech films (live action and animated) but his music was never well known in the West. His sonata is based around an Ancient Greek epitaph which translates as 'While you live, shine' and an Ancient Greek melody is woven into the music. Again, we can hear the neo-classicism of a figure like Hindemith, and the two fast outer movements seem to live in the same busy world as those of the Feld sonata. But in the middle movement, you feel there might be Prokofiev there too.

This first two sonatas, written at different times by contemporaries, seem somehow to live in similar worlds. Both composers continued to spend time in Czechoslovakia (though Feld also taught in Australia), and had to enter into the sort of complex negotiations with the Communist state that were required of any composer of the period living behind the Iron Curtain.

Erwin Schulhoff is a far more well-known composer, and he was also a generation or two older than our first two composers; ten-year-old Schulhoff was encouraged to study music by Dvorak. He studied in Prague, but also in Leipzig, Vienna and Cologne, and served in the First World War, ending up in an Italian prisoner of war camp. He returned to Prague in 1923, but was interned as Jew during the Second World War and died in a camp. Schulhoff was a stylistically diverse composer, responding to the varied stimuli and situations in his life.

His Sonata for Flute, WV 86 dates from 1927, a period when Schulhoff was integrating various elements into his style from modernism to jazz as well as neoclassicism. It is a four-movement work, mixing some strikingly French textures with neoclassical elements and perhaps a hint of jazz in the faster rhythms. The first movement is quite dark yet full of excitement, whilst the scherzo is positively headlong, followed by a strikingly cool, French slow movement and then a fast, edgy finale.

Schulhoff's contemporary Bohuslav Martinů (some four year's older) studied for a short period with Dvorak's son-in-law Josef Suk. Like Schulhoff, Martinů's style changed often in response to circumstances, politics and more, so that in the 1920s Martinů took himself off to Paris and changed his style, bringing in jazz and other elemements but he then moved to neo-classicism. His Sonata for Flute dates from his period in the USA, where he had fled the Nazis. It was written in 1951 for the principal flautist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, George Laurent.

In three movements, the sonata has a striking sense of musical style. The large piano prelude introduces us to a distinctive mix of rich harmonies and clarity of style. It is an engaging work, with the lively two outer movements being full of striking rhythms and a spare, thoughtful middle movement which erupts into something faster and more complex.

When we consider my question that I asked at the beginning, can we detect a common linkage between these composers and their Czech forbears, we have to recognise that the dead hand of 20th century politics lies across all these composers' lives. The mere question of what is was to be Czech became complex, and these men responded in different ways. Yet. We can feel a commonality between these works, perhaps in the composers' approach to rhythm and melody.

Orlando Cela and David Gilliland play this music as if they have known it all their lives. These are engaging performances which make you want to get to know the composers more.

Jindřich Feld (1925-2007) - Sonata for Flute [1957]
Jan Novák (1921-1984) - Sonata super 'Hoson zes ....' [1981]
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) - Sonata for Flute, WV 86 [1927]
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) - Sonata for flute and piano, H.306 [1951]
Orlando Cela (flute)
David Gilliland (piano)
Recorded at The Richard & Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center, Middlesex Community College, Lowell, MA

Album available on-line from Apple Music,.from Spotify.

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