One of the leading ‘rediscoveries’ of Decca’s pioneering Entartete Musik series back in the 1990s was the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Of German-Jewish descent, his racial background and communist sympathies made him a double target for the Nazi regime and he was deported from Czechoslovakia to the Bavarian concentration camp where he died just prior to his planned escape to the Soviet Union. His musical style changed dramatically over his career, but his most popular works fuse a lush German late-Romanticism with suggestions of serialism a la Alban Berg and elements of popular music, especially jazz. Think Szymanowski with the odd foxtrot thrown in. 

Schulhoff

Flammen (Flames), his only opera, premiered at the old National Theatre in Brno in 1932. Based on Karel Josef Beneš surrealist retelling of the Don Juan legend, it’s chiefly known these days in Max Brod’s German translation. With elements drawing on Freud, the Italian commedia del arte, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it’s a heady brew with a sumptuous, sometimes eclectic score, and a great deal of attractive music, even if its plot development is a little wobbly. 

The first act sees a frequently repentant Don Juan pursued by Death through a series of disastrous sexual encounters before finally expressing a desire for oblivion. Six female voices form a Greek chorus of ‘shadows’ throughout, and four of his sexual partners are sung by the same soprano. Act two is set during Carnival night and gingers up the familiar Donna Anna storyline with a bacchanal of dancing and feasting. In the end, Juan longs to die, but Death condemns him to eternal life in the operatic equivalent of Groundhog Day.

This is the work’s second outing on disc, recorded live by Austrian Radio at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 2006. There’s no doubt that Bertrand de Billy, an expert in this repertoire, has the measure of the score and he shapes it with both care and the crucial attention to the musical cut and thrust that’s needed to offset its tendency towards dramatic inertia. The jazz fragments are carried off with real dash. His cast is excellent, and the recording is sufficiently transparent to reveal Schulhoff’s compellingly colourful orchestration. There’s a bit of coughing and some stage noise but nothing too distracting. More problematical is the balance, with some of the solo voices feeling a little distant at times.

Of the soloists, Raymond Very sings with consistent power and an attractive tone in the demanding role of Don Juan, with Iris Vermillion a creamy, deceptively seductive Death. Stephanie Friede is committed but occasionally gusty as Juan’s four victims. The smaller roles are all excellently taken, especially Karl-Michael Ebner, Andreas Jankowitsch and Markus Raab as the commedia troupe.

Although John Mauceri’s 1995 studio recording (Decca 4446302) with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is generally more skilfully engineered, with soloists more present in the mix (though still not always ideally so), enthusiasts for works of this period will likely require both. For all of the opera’s dramaturgical eccentricities, this second recording proves the viability of Flammen as a stage work and hopefully may inspire other companies to take it up.

Listen on Apple Music.

Composer/Title: Erwin Schulhoff
Work(s): Flammen
Performer(s):Raymond Very t, Iris Vermillion ms, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg Chor/Bertrand De Billy
Label: Capriccio C5382

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