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Othmar SCHOECK (1872-1958)
Choral Music
Trommelschläge Op. 26 (1915) [4.40]
Der Postillon Op. 18 (1909) [8.39]
Dithyrambe Op. 22 (1911) [8.48]
Wegelied Op. 24 (1913) [3.24]
Fur ein Gesangfest im Frűhling Op. 54 (1942) [3.24]
Kantate Op. 49 (1933) [15.19]
Vision Op. 63 (1949) [6.59]
Rűckblick (1948) [2.52]
Spruch Op. 69 no. 1 (1941) [1.43]
Einkehr Op. 69 no. 2 (1955) [2.34]
Die Drei Op. 39 (1930) [4.24]
Zimmerspruch Op. 43 (1947) [ 2.18]
Maschinenschlacht Op. 67a (1953) [5.32]
Gestutzte Eiche Op 67b (1953) [2.08]
Martin Homrich (tenor); Ralf Lukas (bass-baritone)
MDR Rundfunkchor/ MDR Sinfonieorchester/Howard Arman; Mario Venzago
rec. Leipzig, Sendesaal, MDR, 4-6 December 2006; 3-5 January 2007
CLAVES 50-2701 [74.46]


Experience Classicsonline

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 Elgar.
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 pre-War days.
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, die unendlichen’.
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 power.
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.
Gary Higginson


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