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Buried Alive Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Mouvement Symphonique - Rugby (1928) [7:47] Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Lebendig begraben Op.40 (1926) [45:08] Dmitri MITROPOULOS (1896-1960)
Concerto Grosso (1928) [25:27]
Michael Nagy (baritone)
The Bard Festival Chorale
The Orchestra NOW/Leon Botstein
rec. The Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College, USA, November 2019 BRIDGE 9540 [78:43]
This enterprising and generously filled disc proves to be fascinating and compelling from start to finish. Of the three diverse works offered, only Honegger's Movement Symphonique 'Rugby' could claim any kind of relative familiarity - certainly for me Schoeck's Lebendig begraben and Mitropoulos' Concerto Grosso are rather wonderful discoveries. The common thread for all three works is that were written in the late 1920's. Further proof if any were needed of the richness and diversity of the Art produced in that decade.
The guides and performers here are conductor Leon Botstein directing his talented group of advanced orchestral studies students; The Orchestra NOW. The same artists featured on a recent Hyperion disc I reviewed of piano concerti by Bliss and Rubbra. There I found the playing to be good but no more than that. I must say that on this new Bridge disc the orchestra sound transformed; more committed, more secure and generally more dynamic - this is excellent playing from all departments.
Honegger's work is one of three he titled Movement Symphonique with the other two the famous steam train depiction of Pacific 231 and third with no descriptive title. If Pacific 231 celebrated mechanistic rhythm then Rugby sought "to capture a complex set of human movements, proceeding by fits and starts and opposing impulses". Musically this translates into the sharp juxtaposition of time signatures and rhythmic cells. A particular delight - and one very well captured here - is the slipping between sharply delineated patterns and a jazz-influenced 'swung' feel. There is one section that bears a striking resemblance to the "Green" movement in Bliss' A Colour Symphony with the trombones schmoozing a syncopating closely-voiced figuration - given that the Bliss predates the Honegger by several years I wonder if that is pure coincidence? Quite why Rugby is not programmed more often I do not know - at less than eight minutes it makes for a decidedly modernistic but not daunting work and certainly it sounds as though the orchestra here enjoy the challenges the work offers. On disc it appears most often as the filler in an all-Honegger programme so again part of the interest in the context of this disc is to compare different composers' responses to the same set of creative stimuli.
The neglect of Othmar Schoeck's large-scale work Lebendig begraben [the "Buried Alive" that gives the disc its title] is equally perplexing. This is an instantly enthralling work and one that was championed and recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as far back as 1962. Indeed Schoeck's oeuvre as a whole strikes me as being under-appreciated given the calibre of many of his works. Perhaps it is the scale of Lebendig begraben that daunts both promoters and performers. This is a fourteen song cycle lasting a full three quarters of an hour for baritone, large orchestra and chorus. The texts [provided in the booklet in full in both the German original and an English translation] are by Gottfried Keller. The premise of the cycle is literally nightmarish - the poet imagines being buried alive from the point of hearing the gravediggers depart, through fear and horror, onto a kind of delirious remembering of times and things past until a final acceptance of this terrifying fate is reached. The liner references critic Paul Griffiths describing the work more as a mono-drama rather than a song cycle and certainly Schoeck's remarkably vivid orchestral writing elevates the work into the world of internalised theatre.
Schoeck originally conceived the work for a basso-profundo but the authorised version recorded here is for baritone and is the same version Fischer-Diskeau recorded. Here the soloist is the German-Hungarian Michael Nagy and it strikes me that he has an ideal voice and musical personality for this wide-ranging often expressionist writing. The Bridge engineering has captured the richness and bloom of Nagy's voice most attractively. Perhaps he is slightly forward in the mix for my preference simply because his voice obscures some of the detail and interest in Schoeck's orchestra. Not having heard the work before I cannot make any comparisons but again it seems to me that Botstein and The Orchestra Now provide exactly the kind of slightly histrionic yet detailed and attentive accompaniment that this style music requires. Certainly anyone who responds to similar works by Schrecker, Schillings, Zemlinsky or others will find much to engage them here. Schoeck's use of orchestral keyboard alongside harp and tuned percussion is reminiscent of Korngold although harmonically Schoeck is leaner and his music feels more overtly modernist than the younger Viennese composer. The seventh song; "Horch - endlich zittert es durch meine" is a good example of this austere but still sensuous scoring.
Another element that gives the sense of this being an unfolding drama is that the music plays continuously. This makes for a demanding and intense listening - let alone performing - experience and I am very impressed with how well the performers draw the listener through the narrative and maintain the focus. The longest section is the closing "Und wieder schlägt's - ein Viertel erst und Zwölfe" where Schoeck adds a wordless chorus which as the liner rather neatly puts it; "amplifies the ecstatic vision of eternity". Given the avoidance of lushness for lushness' sake up until this section I must admit I found this possibly a musical effect too far certainly its feels like an aesthetic shift to something rather more saccharine than has gone before. But again I cannot fault the quality of the performance or presentation of the music here. Overall I have to say this work is something of a revelation, mightily impressive in its scale and intent.
The disc is completed by another surprise package. Dmitri Mitropoulos joins the lengthening list of musicians who latterly made their names as conductors whilst starting out, or aspiring to being, composers. According to Peter Laki's informative liner, Mitropoulos studied composition with Busoni and wrote an opera praised by Saint-Säens at the age of twenty-three. However, by the time he reached his mid-thirties conducting had taken over his musical career and he abandoned composition alltogether. As such the Concerto Grosso of 1928 is one of his last major works. The title would suggest a simple neo-classical work but Laki notes that Mitropoulos "explored the dramatic potential of an uncompromisingly dissonant idiom to a much greater extent than any other neo-classical composer." From a concert programmer's point of view, Mitropoulos complicates matters by scoring each of the work's four movements using different instrumentations. The strings are ever present but joined by horns in the opening movement, cornets and trumpets in the second, woodwind in third and they come together in the finale joined by a substantial percussion section. This is another impressive and substantial score which again receives a wholly convincing performance. The echoes of other composers are more to do with a greater familiarity with other scores rather than any sense of Mitropoulos 'borrowing' from elsewhere. The second movement allegro has a fugal passage which is very reminiscent of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in its use of the interval of the 4th for extended sections. for example. There are echoes of Honegger too and like the Schoeck, this is a slightly austere work with the composer experimenting with instrumental and textural juxtapositions within a complex contrapuntal framework. Even the longest movement of the work the Chorale third movement is concerned more with the abstract potential of canonic and chorale-like writing rather than creating an extra-musical atmosphere.
The closing Allegro is another vigorous fugal movement with the fugue voices entering at the interval of a 2nd which - as Peter Laki says - maximises the clashing sonorities. This is very demanding writing and tests the Orchestra Now's string players like nowhere else on the disc. The addition of an orchestral piano and the aforementioned percussion again pre-echoes Bartok and adds Stravinsky to the aural mix although I cannot think of a Stravinsky score which combines elements of that composer's neo-classical period alongside the brutal energy of the Rite of Spring. All of which proves that as a composer Mitropoulos did have a distinct and individual voice and so the podium's gain was the composer union's loss. Perhaps the creative career and musical voice of the younger Igor Markevitch provides an interesting comparison although I do not know Markevitch's music well enough to know if there is a musical/stylistic parallel as well.
All in all a really fine disc from Bridge. Excellent exploratory performances from Leon Botstein and his talented orchestra and baritone Michael Nagy. All complemented by a very good, detailed and well-balanced recording. Nothing in the liner makes it clear if these are concert or studio performances - certainly no audience noise is present to suggest the latter. The icing on the cake is the excellent liner (in English only except for the song texts) - even the choice of cover font and a Paul Klee illustration seems well thought out and apt.