The Swiss composer, Othmar Schoeck, was born into a tricky generation for anybody who would eventually aim at a composing career. After all, a definite decision would be needed about following fashion and the New Viennese School or attempting to be distinctive in a tonal idiom. Schoeck was basically conservative so he eschewed fashion. Although he flirted with serialism he quickly abandoned it in favour of the moderately updated style that he followed from the middle 1920s to the end of his career. This, at least, should have made his works relatively accessible to the musical public. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with many composers of the second and third rank, those compositions of Schoeck’s that have been afforded performances and/or recordings have generally not been quite distinctive enough to create much in the way of demand for more frequent outings – or for performances of further works. His concertos for violin (review ~ review), cello (review ~ review) and horn (review ~ review) are cases in point. They very occasionally get an airing but haven’t made any real impression on the standard repertoire or found their way into the repertoires of musicians of the first rank.
The three sonatas presented here are in the sequence listed above – the last being a student work that the composer superficially edited, recomposed and resurrected in the 1950s. The listening journey is, therefore, from a vaguely late-Brahmsian idiom via something closer to the style of Pfitzner, Reger and, possibly, Busoni and back to the end of the nineteenth century. All the sonatas fall into three movements.
The Op. 16 work was dedicated to the Hungarian violinist, Stefi Geyer who was also the dedicatee of Schoeck’s violin concerto and Bartók’s first violin concerto. Schoeck had more than a passing affection for Geyer. The sonata opens with a luxuriously lyrical yet intimate Nicht zu Langsam, followed by a vaguely baroque Ruhig middle movement and ends with a contrapuntal Allegro con Spirito. The booklet notes suggest that Schoeck’s studies with Reger were the principal influence here but that is to do the piece a disservice. For me it is more listenable than most Reger and is the best of the three works.
Schoeck completed the rather tougher Op. 46 sonata in 1931, twenty-two years later and it is representative of those works that exhibit the stylistic change referred to above. Here the austere, neo-classical opening Tranquillo bears the hallmarks of Reger and/or Pfitzner. It seems to me that the theme is subjected to development much too quickly for its own good – so that, ultimately, it is unmemorable. Much the same can be said of the next movement (Scherzo rasch und lecht) which opens very promisingly using pizzicato and sounding vaguely like Ravel’s (second) sonata in texture but without the themes. The variational last movement (Breit - Kräftig, bewegt) is introverted, severe and not a very uplifting listening experience. It must have been difficult to learn. The very ending is nicely thrown away and belies much of what has gone before.
The early sonata WoO22 is very much a student work. Arguably, it could have done with more editing/re-composition. It is described in the booklet notes as “having a melodic richness”. If this is true the melodies in the first movement are not particularly inspired ones and the movement meanders on in a stolid two to a bar until it suddenly stops. The second movement is a theme with variations and, although one might struggle to recall the theme or an early variant, the later variations are more interesting with shades of Brahms and Schumann. The third movement is a jolly ramble that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Amazingly, it was Stefi Geyer — with the pianist Walter Frey — who would give the revised work its first performance in Zurich in 1954. The Canton of Zurich oversaw the publication of the work as a gift to the composer for his seventieth birthday.
One usually has to judge works such as these in recorded performances by less well-known musicians of the kind often to be found exploring unusual repertoire. This can mean musicians who are not quite capable of making the best of the music or presenting it to its full advantage. The father and daughter duo here fall into this category. My initial reaction to this disc was admiration for the splendidly luminous recorded sound but I was to be disappointed by the violinist’s slightly undernourished and uningratiating tone; this despite it being produced on a borrowed Strad. I didn’t have the scores to hand so it may be partly the composer’s fault but one or two of the more demanding movements exhibit not quite enough dynamic and tonal variation, with both artists playing at a fairly steady mezzo-forte. That said the pianist is very reliable and agile, the violinist’s intonation is secure and the performances are good enough to enable one to appreciate the music. One must, in any case, take off one’s hat to those who are prepared to go to the considerable trouble of learning these unfamiliar works and recording them.
One last point to note is that the second movement of the Op. 46 sonata (track 5) should lead into the third movement (track 6) without a break but, unfortunately, an editing error has resulted in a brief and unnecessary silence being inserted between the tracks in mid-note which temporarily destroys the flow.
These sonatas will never find their way into the regular repertoire but it is good to hear them. Perhaps surprisingly this is not their first recording – or indeed their second. Previous issues with the same coupling have included the Zgraggen-Koella Duo on Claves, recorded in 2004, Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards on Guild, recorded in 1997 and a Gallo disc of recordings from 1961 by Ursula Bagdasarjanz and Gisela Schoeck, the composer’s daughter. I have not heard any of these but they received very favourable reviews from Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf and I suspect that any of the earlier performances would be preferable to those of the present issue.
Incidentally, the present recording claims to cover the “complete” violin sonatas of Schoeck but, it seems, there is also a fourth sonata (WoO102) - now available, with the other three, on a Musiques Suisses release of 2014: download only. A brief listen to this appealing five-minute work strongly suggests that this last release would also be well worth investigating. Bob Stevenson
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