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Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Suite for String Orchestra in A flat major Op. 59 (1945) [26:25]
Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra Op.61 (1947) [31:02]
Sommernacht - Pastoral Intermezzo for String Orchestra Op.58 (1945) [14:15]
Christoph Croisé (cello)
I Tempi/Gevorg Gharabekyan
rec. Radiostudio Zurich Brunnenhof, Switzerland 21-24 March 2017
GENUIN GEN18497 [71:47]

I have to admit it, I know shockingly little Schoeck. But aside from his 300 songs - and I am not a huge listener to lieder - there is not a great deal to know. Certainly, as far as his orchestral output is concerned it is very small: some five orchestral works with opus numbers plus four more concertante works. Chris Walton - the author of an extended 1995 biography of the composer - in his informative liner for this new disc says that Schoeck himself was unsure of his compositional skill away from the voice, to the point where he self-consciously sought to lower expectations. But this new disc rather triumphantly proves that the composer was his own worst critic with three impressive, diverse and high quality works.

All three works come from the latter stages of Schoeck's life, and were written in the immediate years after World War II. One thing is strikingly apparent across all three works - although they cover a wide range of emotion, there is little if any of the post-war melancholy that one finds in a fellow-romantic such as Richard Strauss. Schoeck's musical style is actually rather hard to pin down. He is no modernist, preferring to utilise a late/post-romantic harmonic palette which is certainly tonal but with a nebulously shifting centre. What is most curious is how, across the movements of a piece and even within the same movement, Schoeck can shift styles from a Transfigured Night-like tortured intensity to an almost Dvořákian folksy humour. If that sounds like an impossible fusion, it actually works rather well.

String orchestras do rather tend to churn out the same repertoire - very fine though much of it is. The music on this disc is something of a treasure-trove for ensembles looking to challenge and delight players and audiences in equal measure. The Suite in A flat major Op.59 that opens the disc is a case in point. This is a substantial five-movement work which opens with a trudging Andante Maestoso - the longest single movement. Frequently, across all these works, Schoeck seems to be fusing a neo-classical handling of form and line with a late-romantic harmonic ambiguity. And, while this is not overtly emotional music, there is a distinctly romantic yearning to many of the melodic lines. Walton makes the point - which is undoubtedly true - that even in these instrumental works, the influence of the human voice is not far away. That said, Schoeck also writes complex inner contrapuntal parts - it makes for a fascinating combination of styles.

This is not a criticism - but this Suite is the work on this disc which seems most prone to the influence of other composers. So if Prokofiev makes a sudden and rather expected appearance in the third movement Tempo di Marcia, it makes for a striking contrast after the distinctly Nordic - and very beautiful - second movement, Pastorale Tranquillo. Although the work has no stated programme, Schoeck did mention that this movement represents "the peace one finds in the deep of the forest". The suite as a whole is well balanced and pleasingly contrasted. Schoeck seems to use little rhythmic and melodic cells to bind the contrasting sections in the 4th movement, Poco Adagio, to the previous Pastorale. The work is then capped with a witty Presto. This has a spinning-top cum tarantella feel - elegantly dispatched with nonchalant ease by the excellent I Tempi Chamber Orchestra.

Of even more value to a string orchestra is the seriously impressive Cello Concerto. It is really rather rare to have a 'proper' weighty concerto running to over thirty minutes that only uses strings as the accompanying instrumentation. The cellist here is the very fine Christoph Croisé. Croisé's playing is very good indeed but the rather close Genuin recording picks up a lot of grunts and sniffs and general noises-off from the soloist. Usually I find this to be of little distraction but certainly on headphones and especially in the first movement this is very noticeable - buyer beware if this kind of extraneous sound grates. But once that has been accepted, this is a mightily impressive work superbly performed. As with all the pieces offered here other versions exist - none of which I have heard. The catalogue shows a version on BIS with other 20th Century Swiss cello concertos from Christian Poltéra, a Claves disc which includes Summer Night [somehow this recording of the concerto seems to take 10 minutes longer than any other version] amongst several others. Given Schoeck's predilection for long 'singing' lines, the cello is probably ideal but again he will contrast within a movement broadly romantic writing with near neo-baroque 'working out' of passages. Walton points out that Schoek's choice of key for the Concerto - A minor - echoes those famous predecessors by Schumann and Saint-Saëns. But this is more of an acknowledgement rather than any stylistic debt.

The enduring impression for the new listener here is of a very impressive and memorable lyrical gift - beautifully realised on this recording by playing of poetry and sensitivity. But when Schoeck needs musical muscle there is plenty to be found here too. The second movement Andante tranquillo again makes a nod towards neo-classical style with the cello singing long lines over a harmonic progression that has the distant echo of an earlier age - the echoed phrases between the soloist and the orchestra and the step-wise movement in the bass line reinforces this impression. The form of the concerto is slightly unusual - a hint of the Elgar here perhaps in its four movements although Schoeck places his brief Presto movement third, but the recapitulation of material in the concerto's finale is a formal device Elgar also used to great effect.

Croisé is excellent at playing with a very wide expressive range - the solo baroqueries of the opening of the aforementioned Presto are in stark contrast to the melting nostalgia of the preceding Andante and indeed the quite transfixing musings that open the closing movement - again playing of real poise and precision from I Tempi. Schoeck finds another stark contrast when this misty dawn gives way to a very bright and brisk no-nonsense finale, all chattering counterpoint and energetic good humour. If elsewhere Schoeck prefers dense and shifting harmonies, this movement has a clear-headed energy that again has a Nordic clarity to my ear.

So far, so good - very good in fact. Now for the work that completes the programme; Sommernacht - Pastoral Intermezzo for String Orchestra. If the other works are better than good, this work is an utter gem and one that deserves to be in the repertoire of any and every self-respecting string orchestra. Walton calls it "Schoeck's most performed instrumental work" and that might well be true but I have never preciously encountered it either as a player, collector or listener. Walton outlines the work's genesis; Schoeck was asked for an orchestral work in 1945 - right after the end of the war. He hesitated through ill-health. One day his 12-year-old daughter came home from school full of enthusiasm for the poem Sommernacht by Gottfried Keller – reproduced in the liner in German with an English translation. Keller was the source of Delius' Village Romeo & Juliet. Scheock had previously considered a vocal setting of the poem - but this re-acquaintance with a familiar work triggered Schoeck to write this instrumental composition. Unlike the absolute music of the other two pieces on this disc, this piece seeks to be unashamedly illustrative; crickets chirp, birds call, peasants sing and dance and there is a dawn sequence replete with echoes of Wagner's Forest Murmurs. Again, if this sounds like some sentimental travelogue hotchpotch, somehow Schoeck binds it into a convincing musical whole. Even more than in the other works, strenuous passages of dense post-romantic chromaticism suddenly dissolve into rustic dances. Walton senses that Schoeck seeks " evoke a pristine, untouched ideal world far-removed from the horrors that had only just come to an end." Some might feel that this is a rather naive view from the relative safety of Switzerland, but at the distance of more than seventy years the beauty and purity of the writing survives. The complexity of Schoeck's writing, both harmonically and within individual parts, means that this is a demanding work for the players.

So now is the time to praise the playing throughout of the excellent I Tempi under their conductor Gevorg Gharabekyan. As I say, I cannot compare these performances to any other but I can say that the level of technical execution is very high here. I Tempi is a small chamber orchestra of just some twenty players. This small number - more than one to part but not so many as to alleviate potential problems of ensemble or intonation - means that the spotlight is thrown onto the players to a considerable degree. It is a tribute to their individual and collective skill that the music comes across with the clarity of ensemble and purity of tuning that it does. Schoek asks for a wide expressive range from his players, utilising most of the technical tricks available to the 20th Century composer for strings - I Tempi play these all with easy refinement, accuracy and brilliance as required. This is a very skilled group indeed.

My only technical observation is to do with Genuin's preferred engineering and microphone placement. As mentioned before, Croisé's vocalising is clearly caught and indeed, all the orchestra is recorded very closely albeit in a very resonant acoustic. I must admit to being rather surprised that the recording location is listed as the radio studios in Zurich - they sound a lot more resonant than the usual acoustic neutrality that one expects of a radio studio. Fortunately the playing of the orchestra is of the calibre to stand up to this overly close examination but it does have the resultant effect of inflating the sound of what is obviously a small ensemble. My feeling is that this music might be even more impressive if played by a full symphonic string section two or even three times the size of I Tempi. This is a question of sheer weight of instrumental tone - not the quality of the actual execution here.

That said, the Genuin presentation is very good. As mentioned, the liner by Schoeck expert Chris Walton, in German and English, is very valuable. The reproduction on the cover of Mitternachtsonne in den Lofoten by Schoeck's father, the landscape painter Alfred Schoeck, is as intelligent as it is apt and attractive. My previous encounter with Schoek had been his equally impressive Notturno Op.47 - a remarkable and moving work for baritone and string quartet. This new disc has opened my ears to three major and impressive works caught in fine performances by highly skilled performers - this was a real pleasure to discover.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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