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MusicWeb International
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Rob Barnett
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Jonathan Woolf
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   Len Mullenger


Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Choral Music
Trommelschläge Op. 26 (1915) [4:40]
Der Postillon Op. 18 91909) [8:39]
Dithyrambe Op. 22 (1911) [8:48]
Wegelied Op. 24 (1913) [3:24]
Für ein Gesangfest im Frühling Op. 54 (1942) [3:24]
Kantate Op. 49 (1933) [15:19]
Vision Op. 63 (1949) [6:59]
Rückblick (Zu einer Konfirmation) (1948) [2:52]
Spruch Op. 69 No. 1 (1941) [1:32]
Einkehr Op. 69 No. 2 (1951) [2:34]
Die Drei WoO No. 39 (1930) [4:24]
Zimmerspruch WoO No. 43 (1948) [2:18]
Maschinenschlacht Op. 67a (1953) [5:32]
Gestutzte Eiche Op. 67b (1953) [2:08]
Martin Homrich (tenor), Ralf Lukas (bass-baritone), Steffen Schleiermacher & Justus Zeyen (pianos), Frank Zimpel (organ), Bernd Angerhöfer (tuba), Eckart Wiegräbe, Lutz Grützmann & Fernando Günther (trombones), Gerd Schenker and Sven Pauli (percussion)
MDR-Sinfonieorchester/Mario Venzago (tr. 1-7), Howard Arman [tr. 8-14)
rec. Sendesaal of MDR, Leipzig, December 2006 (tr. 1-7) and January 2007 (tr. 8-14)
CLAVES 50-2701 [74:46]

As a young man Schoeck was a successful choral conductor who wrote readily for the medium. He pushed his choirs hard and wasn’t universally liked; it seems in any case that the feeling was reciprocal because he was never especially keen on choral conducting. A large number of his works for the medium were written between 1909 and 1915 and despite successes Schoeck accepted with considerable alacrity the position of conductor of the St. Gall Symphony concerts in 1916. As a result choral composition trailed off.
This disc revives this aspect of his compositional life in what are apparently, without exception, world premiere recordings. That argues, if true, for a deal of neglect in this corner of his musical life and it’s proper that Claves, a company that has done so much for Schoeck, should disinter them in this manner.
Although he began with a capella works he moved swiftly to big orchestral accompanied late Romantic pieces. Trommelschläge is just such a work, dating from a crisis year of 1915. It is written for big forces and its rhythmic profile embraces vehemence; March themes and some cataclysmic incidents herald percussive violence. It’s a tough pill to swallow when it appears first on the programme but it does alert us to the breadth enshrined in some of these choral works. It’s not all fun. Sometimes, as here, it’s unyielding and shattering.
To turn to Der Postillon, written six years earlier, is almost a programmatic game, so placid and ardent are the rich hues of the Straussian romanticism evoked. That influence becomes clarified in Dithyrambe where the drama surges powerfully and the work ends with almost grandiosely Mahlerian cadences. It’s a tricky sing for the choir especially when the chorus is suddenly bereft of orchestral support; strong preparation is necessary to ensure pitch doesn’t sag.
Other works are reflective of smaller things. Wegelied for example is a jaunty march whilst Vision is an absolutely beautiful piece for male chorus – touching, romance-filled, and with verdant archaisms subsumed ripely into the fabric of the score. There’s one piece written for a child’s confirmation and a few others that are occasional – some too that are lesser things but pleasing to have nevertheless. They show the breadth of commissions and enthusiasms.
I’ve deliberately left the long 1933 Kantate till now.  In Schoeck’s hands it’s a prescient and satirical polemic – agit-prop really in effect – written for chorus, three trombones, tuba, piano and percussion. The nature of the accompaniment obviously hints at the satiric forces at work and the percussion adds populist bite. The brass interjects with smeary comments and the centrepiece is a long speech from the Council – a piece of fatuous windbag prose that lances the procrastinating blindness of officialdom. The text by the way is by Eichendorff and it takes on a surprising modernity in this work.  The injunction to “let God rule” seems made more in desperation than hope in the context of Schoeck’s setting. Maschinenschlacht (1953) is set to a text by Hesse and can be best translated as The Battle of the Machines. The text is crudely simplistic and Schoeck responds in kind.
Some of these choral works still have the power to cause difficulties. There’s strain in the tenors in Der Postillon for instance but otherwise the forces cope well with the fulsome demands placed on them. The recordings were made at the same location under two different conductors a month or so apart. The grip never slackens. There are full texts translated into English and good notes, further to tempt those unfamiliar with Schoeck’s exploration of choral forces.
Jonathan Woolf

And another perspective from Rob Barnett:
Claves have been a staunch and practical supporter of the lyrical Schoeck over the years. In the circumstances one might reasonably have expected ceaselessly mellifluous music from his choral output. Not quite. The music here is varied in expressive range. That point is brutally rammed home in the Whitman setting Trommelschlage. This has a remorseless tread and rocks with the ruthless hubbub of Bliss’s The city arming from Morning Heroes. Brass and voices bray and groan, paralleling the forceful writing of Vaughan Williams’ 1930s choral masterpiece Dona nobis pacem. Words are spat out and there is defiance verging on repulsion in the final brassy gesture. Der postillon is back to Schoeck mainstream. The words are by Lenau and the music conjures the blissfully moonlit fields of his masterwork for string orchestra Sommernacht. This is a Schubertian piece rounded with peaceful sleep but with the orchestra occasionally injecting a shiver; never a shudder. The peace ends in a submissive downbeat. Dithyrambe is for mixed choir and is rather shallow with its Beethovenian crash and all-purpose triumph  Wegelied sets words by Gottfried Keller who wrote the story on which Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is based. It’s a walking song which coasts just a shade too close for comfort to a military march. There’s another Keller setting in Für ein Gesangfest im Frühling which once again snaps and crackles along as a purposeful march.
The 1933 Kantate sets words by Eichendorff for brass and piano with male voice choir. This is an ambitious yet gloomy, protesting and haunted piece riven by Brechtian satire. Vision leads the listener back to elysian calm, echoing calmly from channel to channel. This is music that is unassertive and gentle aided by sweetened strings. It’s once again very close in mood to Sommernacht with its ecstatic calm gloriously punched home by the fascinating harmonic ochre that brings the work to a sighing end. Like Wegelied and Für ein Gesangfest im Frühling the next two works Spruch and Einkehr leave little impression behind. Then from male voice choir comes the awed intoning of Die drei a capella. Zimmerspruch is jolly and swings along with clever little hesitations adding rhythmic pepper. Maschinenschlacht is another satirical piece – a Luddite anthem about the stupidity of machines and their lack of poetry and imagination … and about their defeat; wishful thinking. It sets words by Hermann Hesse. Gestutzte Eiche is about a truncated oak putting out leaves - the irrepressible force of renewal. It’s serenade quality recalls archetypical Swedish choral music.
The excellent notes are by Schoeck authority Chris Walton. How long before his biography is picked up and translated into English? While we are on the subject of aspirations, I do hope that some company, possibly Claves, will be able to negotiate a licence for the release in a single 12 CD set of Schoeck’s lieder. Jecklin Disco should surely be open to that idea or to releasing the set themselves in 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Those lieder recordings are much missed. In the meantime celebrate with this sometimes disturbing sometimes beguiling cross-section of Schoeck’s choral music.
Rob Barnett


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