Shapeshifter - Music of Erwin Schulhoff / Conlon, Artists of the Colburn School

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The powerful and amazingly varied music of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, whose art was suppressed by the Nazi regime and who died in captivity in 1942, is given stirring performances by brilliant young players from the Colburn School, Los Angeles’ elite conservatory. James Conlon, world-renowned conductor and LA Opera music director, leads the RVC Ensemble in Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto, Op. 43, with Dominic Cheli as soloist. Four other pieces — all strong and unique —complete the album’s offerings, which span the years between 1923 and 1937. Cheli and violinist Adam Millstein are particularly outstanding contributors.

While Schulhoff’s music has been gradually emerging from near-total obscurity in recent years, Shapeshifter is especially notable as the first album-length example of his works being taken up by American musicians of classical’s ascendant “next generation.” We at Delos hope the album sparks increased interest in Schulhoff among younger players and their audiences. The project is intimately connected to the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices, which encourages greater awareness and more frequent performances of music by composers whose careers and lives were disrupted or ended during the years of the Nazi regime in Europe. The Recovered Voices initiative was established at the Colburn School in 2013.


The Piano Concerto is a unified work with integrity and a strict formal structure. In each of the three movements, it explores romanticism with a touch of impressionism, and nods to modernism and jazz. The latter is particularly prominent in the Allegro alla jazz finale, where Schulhoff calls for an 18-piece percussion section that includes cog rattle, cowbell, sleigh bells, castanets, tambourine and siren. Foxtrot and Romany music lead towards a riotous conclusion, but not before a magical sostenuto section.

The Five Pieces for string quartet, dedicated to Darius Milhaud, can be construed as a “dance suite” which nods towards the Baroque models. A work of this vitality ought to be in the standard repertoire of all string quartet ensembles.

In the Suite for piano left hand, the listener is left marveling at the technical brilliance of the soloist being able to play this music with his left hand alone. At nearly 19 minutes, it is too long for an encore, but it does deserve its place in the recital room.

In the period when Schulhoff wrote the Violin Sonata No. 2, he was often influenced by jazz. Yet, it is Bartók and Berg that are the obvious models here. Adam Millstein and Dominic Cheli’s performance points up the virtuosity and brilliance of the piece.

The final number is Susi. This short “cocktail bar” piano piece is a sheer delight. It would seem to be a transcription of a song. Written when Schulhoff was exploring Socialist Realism and implementing the diktats of Marxist ideology, it is surely decadent. But one must recall that he was also earning money as “one half of a piano duo”. Susi is full of nostalgia and, possibly, regret.

I have noted the superb performances of all this music. The outstanding liner notes include biographical information, analysis, and details of the performers. The recording reflects the vibrancy of this repertoire.

This disc makes a great introduction to the achievement of an unjustifiably less well-known composer, although in recent years his music has been making a comeback on the recording scene. This release is worth the price for the stunning performance of the Concerto alone. Everything else is a wonderful bonus. I need to hear more of Erwin Schulhoff’s music.

-- MusicWeb International

This album offers mainly chamber music, but with the concerto for piano and small orchestra also a work in larger instrumentation. The album, performed by instrumentalists and thus also soloists of the Colburn School, not only demonstrates Schulhoff’s versatility, but above all his variability in the use of means, such as jazz and other influences, as well as his humor, for example when he forces the waltz into a limping march beat and at the same time still mixes the waltz of high society with a Ländler. Illuminating is also the versatility of styles and characters in the 5 Pieces for string quartet, which shows the alert mind of this composer. These works, especially from the period after his return to Prague in 1923, also provide an opportunity to perceive the energy of this idiosyncratic musical voice.

The young artists specialize in the music of ostracized musicians of the last century. The coordinating hand is James Conlon, tireless despite his numerous activities, who also successfully conducted the concert.

In addition to the above-mentioned aspects, it is noticeable in all performances that the musicians wonderfully succeed in extracting the vibrant energy from the music and transforming it into rousing sounds. Each piece sounds like a freshly created work.

-- Pizzicato

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 07, 2022

  • Catalog Number: DE 3566

  • UPC: 013491356624

  • Label: Delos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

  • Conductor: James Conlon

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Colburn Orchestra

  • Performer: Dominic Cheli


  1. Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 43

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Ensemble: RVC Ensemble

    Performer: Dominic Cheli (Piano)

    Conductor: James Conlon

  2. Pieces (5) for String Quartet

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Performer: Gallia Kastner (Violin), Adam Millstein (Violin), Cara Pogossian (Viola), Ben Solomonow (Cello)

  3. Suite No. 3 for the Left Hand

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Performer: Dominic Cheli (Piano)

  4. Violin Sonata No. 2

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Performer: Adam Millstein (Violin), Dominic Cheli (Piano)

  5. Susi

    Composer: Erwin Schulhoff

    Performer: Dominic Cheli (Piano)