So, with the exception of Frank Martin what do
you know about 20th Century Swiss Music? If you know
anything at all then the name of Othmar Schoeck will be the
only name you probably know. Even then it has be admitted that
he is hardly a household name. I have read somewhere that he
is best known for his choral music. I must say that these are
the first pieces in that genre I have ever encountered, although
I do possess a recording, also on Claves, of his long and melancholy
late Cello Concerto (1947) which is even more elegiac than the
His choral works and the ones under review here
are, partially at least, early pieces being of the period just
before WW1 when Schoeck, slightly against his better judgement,
became a renowned choral conductor. Several of them are for
male voices - or as the CD innocently puts it ‘small male chorus’ -
including the longest work on the disc: the curious ‘Kantate’ which
uses a very political text suitable for its period c.1933 and
the rise of the Nazism which was soon to overtake Switzerland.
It is a passionate piece sometimes recitative in character and
sometimes fast flowing and accompanied by rather sinister lower
brass. Also quite sinister is the extraordinary and deliberately
lugubrious ‘Die Drei’ which is a capella and uses a strong
bass ostinato. The text by Niklaus Lenau tells of three horsemen
after being defeated in battle. The earliest work here is also
for men’s voices: ‘Der Postillon’ with words also by the melancholic
Lenau (1802-1850). It is a typical example of the Schubert-type
inspiration which was characteristic of Schoeck in those heady
I’m not sure if in later life Schoeck regretted
his overly patriotic ‘Wegelied’ of 1913 with its marching rhythms “…and
gently the fine silk flag/high above them waves in the sky/in
the fatherland’s merry celebration” as the male chorus march
off to a singing rehearsal! Even between the wars it was Schoeck’s
most performed work although of course, unknown in Britain.
The rather demanding ‘Zimmerspruch’ (Carpenter’s Song) also
for men, but a capella, was indeed written for a music
festival with words by the German poet Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862).
In 1911 Schoeck wrote his impressive ‘Dithyrambe’ for
double chorus and a massive orchestra. This powerfully sets
just three lines by Goethe. Although Schubert may be there somewhere
it seemed Beethovenian to me, with its cries of ‘Alle Freuden,
The disc opens impressively with the short, grim
outburst, ‘Trommelschläge’, a setting of Walt Whitman ‘Beat!
Beat! Drums’ with massive percussion, a vast orchestra, and
a chorus always at loud fever pitch who also shout and bellow.
This is a war protest piece; the words written, according to
the well translated booklet essay, by one Beat A. Follmi (yes,
that is his name) under the impact of the American War of Independence.
It’s a pity that nothing else on the disc quite matches its
Post-World War 2 Schoeck is writing his last choral
works and one of the most impressive is ‘Vision’. The booklet
track-listing gives it as for male voices, trumpet, three trombones
and percussion, but the men are in fact accompanied by a fully-blown
symphony orchestra, with its climax reaching a state of Brucknerian
nobility. The text is by a favourite poet Gottfried Keller and
is typical of those Schoeck prefers – late-romantic, nature
and decay, tinged with nostalgia but with the promise of new
life and most importantly a yearning and searching for freedom.
The word transcendental crosses my mind.
Adding variety are those pieces which are listed
as for ‘Children’s voices’ but are here performed by quite mature
women’s voices. One such is the very brief ‘Spruch’ one of a
pair of songs with simple piano accompaniment.
‘Rűckblick’ is an example of a work for mixed
chorus, with words by Eduard Mörike, and the last two pieces
on this well-filled CD are also for male voices, the rather
brutal ‘Maschinenschlacht’ (Battle of the Machines) and ‘Gestutzte
Eiche’ (Truncated Oak) both with words by fellow countryman
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and both late works. The former with
political overtones was considered very difficult by its first
performers with its intense chromaticism. The latter is more
reflective and melancholy with its ambiguously tonal ending.
It’s difficult to know if this music will really
appeal very much to English-speaking nations. These pieces are
perhaps the German equivalent of Elgarian choruses. The performances
are very fine indeed and the recording does everyone full justice.
It’s curious that two conductors are represented but both obviously
love the music and are in much sympathy with it. The first seven
tracks, involving an orchestra are conducted by Mario Venzago;
the remainder by Howard Arman. I can’t in all honesty tell you
why because although the very useful booklet essay is translated
in English the performer biographies are not and my German is
poor. All texts however are given and seem very well translated.
The essay discusses the works chronologically but that is obviously
not the recorded order.
The recording is excellent, both in terms of clarity
and balance. The words are always very well enunciated and the
general presentation of the pieces is as good as the composer
or anyone could have hoped. A splendid project.
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