Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Notturno - Five movements for string quartet and voice on poems by Nikolaus Lenau and a fragment by Gottfried Keller, op. 47 (1931-33) [42:50]
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Rosamunde Quartett (Andreas Reiner (violin); Diane Pascal (violin); Helmut Nicolai (viola); Anja Lechner (cello))
rec. Historische Reitstadel, Neumarkt, December 2007. DDD
ECM NEW SERIES ECM 2061 (476 6995) [42:50]
The Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck wrote 11 compact discs’ worth of lieder – some 400 songs. We know this from the Jecklin series released in the 1980s and 1990s and sporting great names: Ian Bostridge, Lynne Dawson, Christine Schäfer, Julianne Banse, Wolfram Rieger and Julius Drake. Schoeck was among the last famous exponents of lied alongside Marx and Pfitzner. The voice was his natural channel for expression. There were no symphonies and while there are two string quartets even his instrumental works (concertos for violin, horn, cello) also proclaim his vocal style-set. His espousal of the human voice is also evident in his eight operas. Schoeck’s lieder are predominantly for voice and piano but major examples for voice and orchestra (Elegie; Lebendig Begraben, Befreite Sehnsucht) and - as we can see here - for voice and string quartet also exist. He was another late-romantic who persisted in his lyrical art long after the world had turned its back on the style. Fashion changes and Schoeck;s credit has risen since the mid-1970s. Commercial recordings are not exactly legion but they are certainly not that difficult to run to ground. That said, the illustrious Jecklin series has been deleted and there are no signs of reissue – a pity as it’s one series that cries out for a celebratory boxed set. The ascent of Schoeck’s music from obscurity has been further confirmed, indeed accelerated, by the appearance of a major book in English. Chris Walton’s magnificently detailed and atmospheric biography incorporating commentary on the music has been published. It is so much more than a straight translation of Walton’s Schott published biography (German only, 1995). Well worth getting, it is a most absorbing and intimate read: “Othmar Schoeck – Life and Works”, University of Rochester Press, 2009, ISBN-13 978-1-58046-300-3; pp.446) and counterpoints the music with the life. Chris Walton wrote the satisfying notes for this ECM release and the insert also includes the sung texts with parallel translation into English.
Schoeck’s lieder find their undeniable beauty in melancholy, in haunting nostalgia and in golden reflection. Notturno – a cycle in five parts with two poems in each part (parts separately tracked here) is no exception. There are episodes of exuberance or panic but the centrifugal pull is always towards regret or sorrow. The poems are by Nikolaus Lenau with the final song setting words by Gottfried Keller who wrote the story A Village Romeo and Juliet later to form the basis for Delius’s opera of the same name. The string quartet is a true and significant partner to the baritone voice. The writing is simply masterly and is analytically put across by ECM’s engineering team. Every mood and emotional eddy is reflected, foreshadowed and intensified by the instruments. The weave of the sound is tender yet sinister. Gerhaher ‘lives’ the words magnificently. His voice combines the ringing sonorous strength of an early advocate of the cycle, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the honeyed softening of Herman Prey or Peter Schreier. The realm created by Schoeck and most vividly put across on this disc is very close to Peter Warlock’s contemporaneous The Curlew. The two works are brothers under the skin. This is one of Schoeck’s finest works and the final hypnotic Keller poem where the soul of the ‘hero’ melts into eternity is utterly superb. The pacing and warmth of this ‘Abschied’ is most adroitly done. The surrender of the soul to the sunset is gently ‘rounded with a sleep’.
Notturno has been recorded several times over the years. Klaus Mertens and the Minguett 4tet on NCA, François Le Roux with works by Samuel Barber Dover Beach and Louis Durey Chansons basques on Gallo. Olaf Bär recorded it in 1997 with Wanderung Im Gebirge, Op. 45 on Denon with the Carmina Quartet. That recording has appeared in harness with the Szymanowski quartets but shorn of the Op. 45 work at bargain price on Dal Segno DSPRCD056. Accord at one time issued some archival tapes which included Notturno and the Eichendorff Lieder. EMI recorded Fischer-Dieskau in the work in 1993 but old-timers might well recall his 1960s CBS LP with the Juilliard Quartet (S72687). It would be good to hear the DF-Ds. The only one I have encountered is the Dal Segno Bär. Bär lacks Gerhaher’s aureate qualities though he has more abrasion, protest and anger in his voice. The Dal Segno does not include texts and translations but where the ECM offers just Notturno Dal Segno include good versions of the two Szymanowskis and the Webern Langsamer Satz. However on this showing if Notturno and musicality is your priority then Gerhaher and ECM have the edge.
A most sensitive and moving traversal of Notturno which transcends the stingy playing time.
Nick Barnard received this disc for blind review with no clues as to composer or participants
Winning streaks have to come to an end. So far I’ve had a pretty good run with the blind listening discs. Even when I’ve not known for certain the repertoire the composers involved have seemed clear. Until now; this disc has me flummoxed both as repertoire and composer. But what a wonderful work this is … whatever it is. The repertoire for voice and string quartet is smaller than I think it deserves to be. Composers seem compelled to add something else to give weight or colour. There are several examples of British composers using this combination from Gurney and Finzi to Butterworth and Ginastera’s String Quartet No.3 is in effect a song-cycle but I can’t think of many else. Famously Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 includes settings for voice and quartet which marked his setting sail for the brave new world of atonal composition. Which perhaps gives a little sign-post for the work under consideration. So what can I say for certain; on the cover of the disc was written that it dates 1931–33. It is a song-cycle (I assume) for baritone and string quartet set in German. Recently I reviewed the two Franz Schmidt String Quartets from Nimbus which dated from half a dozen years or so before this work and they share some of the same aesthetic values of extended tonality music rooted in the song traditions of the previous century. There is a parallel in the use of extended tonality, sliding chromaticism prevails in most of the movements but this composer avoids the anguished bleak torment of Zemlinsky or the confident lush dexterity of Korngold. Somehow he is gentler in his manipulation of tonality at the brink. Perhaps it is closer to the sound-world of Joseph Marx. Given that I cannot speak German the specific content of the text eludes me but there is a prevailing mood of uneasy calm. With the exception of a strange brief nocturnal scherzo [track 2] – all moth-like muted strings fluttering around the lamp of the baritone’s voice – the work is predominantly slow and/or intense and sombre. Yet I would not be sure that I would characterise it as ‘sad’ – more haunted; a sequence of bleak reflections on things past perhaps.
This is an ambitious work – which makes its unfamiliarity to me all the more surprising – and given the relative lack in variety of mood in lesser hands I suspect the attention might wander. But not here – the string quartet are absolutely superb, technically impervious to any of the complexities thrown at them but even more impressive than that is the range of colour they produce to match the musical moment. In the middle of the long first movement – 17:29 alone - the very extended instrumental interlude is played with real attack and expressive intensity. Interesting that this should be one of the most overtly restless and expressionist passage in the work yet the singer is notable by his absence; I wonder what the musical message is here? The baritone is truly magnificent. To my ear it sounds like idiomatic German and his is a young, beautiful, naturally burnished easy and unforced voice. His control of vibrato is perfection, again subtle and unforced. One of my pet hates in song and lieder is archly mannered ‘word-painting’ that some critics and listeners seem to mistake for showing hyper-sensitive awareness of the text. To my mind all that results in is a psychotic pointing of each and every word at the expense of the dramatic arc of a text. The singer here, with superb diction – I can hear every word I just don’t know what they mean! – goes for the longer line. Hear the way he blanches away his tone after the quartet’s interlude mentioned above [track 1 11:30] to create a frozen trance-like state – the very lack of word pointing working brilliantly. The sinking into the depths both musical and psychological at the end of this movement is superbly performed here.
The central setting of the work finds the singer in more declamatory mood, the music more assertive. All the performers harden their tone and push on. Not that this is ‘fast’ music as such just with more forward momentum as if some decision has been reached, the range of emotion and dynamic the widest and most restless in the work yet it ends with chilly harmonics. The fourth movement is sung with a pared back childish simplicity although I find the effect to be unnerving rather than innocent – certainly the accompanying strings do nothing to imply this is music without shadows. At barely 2:30 this is the shortest most mysterious movement – perhaps the child is a ghost or death stands near…?
After the extended sequence of minor key agonisings of the earlier movements the end of the work is quite quite beautiful. Another string interlude – balancing the one in the opening movement but travelling far less troubled waters - reaches [track 5 from around 8:00 onwards] a passage when the strings hold a sequence of simple high chords with the minimum of vibrato or volume and the singer returns having found some inner peace and consolation. He lightens his tone and there is a sense of wide-eyed acceptance that is disarmingly moving. He leaves the strings to have a final gentle adieu – one gently dissonant side slip apart. An analogy that sprung to mind is the wonderful moment at the end of The Cunning Little Vixen when the gamekeeper sees the circle of life reborn in the new fox cubs – a moment of wondrous rapture. Perhaps our singer here has woken from a dream (Paul-like at the end of Die tote Stadt) and with the dawn sees new hope. A word here for the engineering too which I think is ideal. It sounds as though the singer is standing just in front of the quartet but the result is a perfect balance allowing both vocal and instrumental detail to register. The quartet is close enough in the mix that during the several extended instrumental passages the music registers with all the immediacy one would wish for yet during the accompanying music there is no sense of any synthetic balance being required. The engineer/producer have not been afraid for the strings to swell and engulf the voice – its all very sensual in a way that seems to suit the musical settings ideally.
As a work it is does bear passing similarities to other works; some of Gurney’s pain but far better written for the strings; some of Korngold’s lushness but expressed in a more chaste and controlled, less gushing way. Closer to Marx’s tonal world but to be honest much more interesting and skilfully set; simpler more melodic earlyish Zemlinsky (not as Zemlinsky was writing by 1931). Oh, what the hell – it’s wonderful and unique and this is why I love music; every day a new discovery like this. I’m going to stop now and listen to it all over again ….