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Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) Elegie, Op 36 (1922)
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Kammerorchester Basel/Heinz Holliger
rec. 2020, Landgasthof Riehen, Switzerland
Texts and translations included SONY CLASSICAL 19439963302 
A surplus of Schoeck has been absorbed here in East Lancashire over recent weeks. I have often wondered whether being a composer from Switzerland (as opposed to, say Germany, France or Austria, to name three close neighbours) is something of a disadvantage for a composer. Whilst the trio of Schoeck, Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger are certainly the best known and most accomplished Swiss composers of the first half of the twentieth century they rarely feature in concert programmes outside their homeland; given the terrific quality of much of their output their lack of presence in this regard is presumably in some measure due to an unfortunate accident of geography. As it is each of them seemed to plough their own distinctive furrow: Honegger was initially attracted by Les Six but his most successful later music adopts a severity which seems greatly at odds with the aesthetic traditionally associated with that group. Arguably Martin’s great strength lies in the marvellous structural cohesion which characterises much of his finest orchestral and choral work. Othmar Schoeck was predominantly drawn to vocal music (there are well over 300 songs and three operas which have at one time or other been able to maintain some kind of a foothold on the edge of the repertory); his stature has possibly suffered as a result of excessive comparison to Richard Strauss. If there is a Swiss ‘style’ the overlap can perhaps be detected in the transparency of Schoeck’s scoring for a largish ensemble of 25 players, a delicate clarity which is also present in so much of Martin’s works for restricted forces (the Harpsichord Concerto, the brilliant Rilke cycle Der Cornet) and in those pieces by Honegger which eschew his predilection for thick textures such as Pastorale d’été (inspired by the countryside around Bern and composed a year or so before Schoeck’s Elegie) and especially his fourth symphony Deliciae Basiliensis, which in my view is his orchestral masterpiece and one of the finest of all twentieth century symphonies. (I must confess that I can actually whistle it from start to finish - a party piece which has thus far gone untested at an actual party, alas).
Schoeck’s Elegie is one of a number of extended song cycles he compiled which require orchestral accompaniment – of the two others of comparable duration the strange, expressionistic Lebendig begraben (Buried Alive) of 1926 to texts by Gottfried Keller was memorably recorded in 1962 by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (it was briefly reissued in the early 1990s coupled with Keilberth’s account of Pfitzner’s Von deutscher Seele on a DG twofer 437 033-2); Nachhaal (1955) on the other hand inhabits similar emotional terrain to Elegie (and is similarly is dominated by settings of Nikolaus Lenau) but via the prism of a composer in his dotage. Both these collections make their mark on the listener, especially Lebendig begraben which is profoundly disturbing and from my recent experience not a wise choice of pre-sleep headphones listening. But over the years Elegie has increasingly struck me as a masterpiece, if not a work a typical listener might recognise as such at first hearing.
It has been widely assumed that the cycle, which involves eighteen Lenau texts and half a dozen by Joseph von Eichendorff (two of which bookend it) formed some kind of cathartic response on the part of the composer to the imminent demise of an intense, obsessive relationship with the pianist Mary de Senger, but Beat Föllmi’s thoughtful and informed booklet note urges a degree of caution with that view. It has to be said that the poems which comprise Elegie do, however seem to trace a broadly sequential arc through the desolation experienced by an individual dealing with successive phases of romantic grief, whilst omnipresent allusions to loneliness and the changing of the seasons might reinforce such an interpretation.
A few years ago during one of my opportunistic visits to Roger Hewland’s much missed Gramex shop next to Waterloo Station I gambled a couple of quid on Andreas Schmidt’s late 1990s account on CPO with Musikkollegium Wintherthur under Werner Andreas Albert - review. On the first listen, I was certainly struck by the quality of the individual songs, by their apparent memorability, but I was mostly impressed by the unlimited palette of Schoeck’s orchestration, especially remarkable for a sequence which adopts a tempo which is largely one-paced and which involves such a small band. His use of percussion and especially piano is telling, but it’s often discreetly alluring solo woodwind and viola lines which mirror the main melody. The string writing is darkly atmospheric in the main, but it’s colourful and consoloing rather than creepy. Schmidt sings it wonderfully well. The Winterthur players do their compatriot composer proud and the recording is also very fine.
Christian Gerhaher brings his customary depth, sensitivity and luxuriant tone to this unusual music. He has the benefit of a legendary orchestra in top form as well as the legendary Heinz Holliger a musician with apparently innate sympathy for Schoeck’s art. Holliger’s commitment to every recording project he undertakes seems fulsome and authentic and this disc is no exception, This is also a major label release; Sony’s sonics are remarkably detailed. So it’s got to be better than the CPO disc, right?
It’s a magnificent issue for sure, but I would argue that it complements rather than supplants the earlier account. Schmidt has a splendid voice and approaches each number in an agreeably conventional way – he’s relatively liberal with the vibrato but certainly manages to navigate a route through the cycle which certainly doesn’t minimise the importance of the text but arguably prioritises the musical line. Gerhaher, by contrast seems to live, or rather endure every syllable. And these emerge so naturally that the listener could be forgiven for thinking they are privy to some kind of spontaneous confessional. There is a deeply appealing world-weariness in Gerhaher’s almost rapt delivery in numbers such as Zweifelnder Wunsch (Despairing Wish – no.6) or Waldgang (Forest Walk --no.8). On the three occasions when the tempo increases and the drama becomes more overt (Nos, 5, 7 and 18) Gerhaher turns on the proverbial sixpence, and to my ears at these key moments he is certainly more impactful than Schmidt. If there is a more perfect conclusion to a conventional 20th century orchestral song cycle (I’m even tempted to include Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot, another Eichendorff text from the Vier Letzte Lieder in this judgement) than Schoeck’s languid, heartbreaking setting of Der Einsame (The Recluse) I have yet to hear it. Both Gerhaher and it has to be said Schmidt project its singular melancholy most eloquently.
The two recordings are very different; CPO offer a rather generalised sound whereas Sony’s is definitely more ‘in one’s face’. The detail that emerges in the orchestral backcloth on the new disc is subtle yet spectacular, to the point that telling little details (the weirdly effective piano ‘bells’ in Vesper - no 11, for instance) come to life with great immediacy, possibly excessively so for some ears. That said, the ambience is still warm and agreeable, The Basel Chamber Orchestra plays with exceptional commitment throughout, energised no doubt by Holliger’s deep appreciation of this music. The entire experience is a profoundly affecting one.
Regardless of any commercial success this new issue might enjoy, in purely artistic terms Sony have done music lovers a massive favour. Whilst Schmidt and Albert’s CPO account of Elegie presents the music in a convincing light (and I certainly wouldn’t be without it) Gerhaher and Holliger (and the impressive orchestra) seem to find even more in a cycle that really should be a concert staple. I hope readers unfamiliar with this magnificent sequence take heed and snap up this outstanding disc without delay.
Contents: (poems by Nikolaus Lenau and Joseph von Eichendorff*)
3. Stille Sicherheit
4. Frage nicht
5. Warnung und Wunsch
6. Zweifelnder Wunsch
9. An den Wind
10. Kommen und Scheiden
16. Das Mondlicht
20. Verlorenes Glück
22. Welke Rose
24. Der Einsame*