Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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OTHMAR SCHOECK (1886-1957) Massimilla Doni (1934-5) Hermann Winkler (Duke Cattaneo); Harald Stamm (Capraja); Josef  Protschka (Memmi); Roland Hermann (Prince Vendramin); Massimilla  Doni (Edith Mathis). Kölner RSO and Choir/Gerd Albrecht   CD1: 56:05  CD2: 71:17 127:22 Recorded January 1986 Koch Schwann CD314 025 K3



Schoeck’s gloriously obsessive old-fashioned love affair with the human voice is becoming better known. There are eight stage works, a significant handful of song cycles with orchestra and 11 (yes, ask the Swiss CD company Jecklin-Disco; they’ve recorded them all!) CDs worth of songs for voice and piano. As for the instrumental works there is little doubt that they are vocally inspired. Massimilla Doni is a German language opera in six scenes allocated in four acts. It is based on a novel by Balzac to a libretto by Schoeck’s literary collaborator, Armin Rueger. The plot is quite involved and I am not going to try to summarise it here. The sleeve-notes refer to the style of the opera as ‘free-tonal’. It is Schoeck’s penultimate opera.

This set must be an early CD issue. In fact it dates from 1986, three years after the launch of the CD. The project is one arrived at in co-operation with Köln Radio. The sleeve writer is NOT Christopher Walton who is now THE Schoeck scholar in much the same way that Lewis Foreman occupies a similar place with the life and work of Arnold Bax, but Othmar Fries. His useful notes are in German, English and French. Although there is a separate libretto book it is only in German with no translation. There is however an English language synopsis - a poor substitute.

Orchestral textures in the opera are often busy with detail - teeming with interest and springing the singing. The voice is the senior partner and the recording is balanced accordingly. This is not the slightly dreamy melancholic-ecstatic Schoeck of Sommernacht. Here he is perhaps less distinctive but still strongly engaging.

There is no overture as such. The only distinct orchestral 'bon-bon' is the orchesterwischenspiel to scene 3. Scene 1 begins in calm and peace. There is a jolly jogtrot to Caparaja's words Ihr fulte die liebe. A notable highlight is Emilio's ringingly heroic aria Endlich - ihr Narren. The act which is in a single scene plays out to Edith Mathis's Massimilla dreamily humming.

Scene 2 begins with a deliciously curveting and playful flute and indeed the flute is a leading player in the orchestral introductions to most of the acts. The glumly intense singing of the male singers can make some of this scene a bit of a trial.

Scene 3 offers a music box dance preceded by a grand romantic prelude in the manner of Glazunov and no trace of fustiness. There is a brightness and jollity here which I associate with Grainger. The string writing if very bright and Britten-like. The solo piano dances and slides in a very impressionistic episode sung over glorious Es lebe die tinti - which is immediately followed by a repeat of the ‘music box’ gavotte, There is a charmingly Brahmsian duet between Tinti and the female chorus. Tinti delivers a series of dramatic high notes in entrancing Queen of the Night style. Schoeck can turn on the Grand Manner and towards the end of the scene seems intent on recapturing Verdi’s Lament of the Jewish slaves from Nabucco. The end of the scene is jolly. Highlights include the song Wie widerwartig dies der Zufall fugt with sumptuous hyper-romantic hyper singing both tender and powerful.

Baxian string textures underpin Es Gibt Ein Einmal. Would that young tenors would attempt this wonderful music but too often they are locked in Puccini and Verdi. A little variety when it is of this quality would not come amiss.

The influence of Mahler and Wagner can be felt from time to time. The voices receive excellent tactful orchestral support and only rarely does Schoeck call for massive orchestral volume. Time and again I thought of Korngold of Die tote Stadt and Violanta and of the Goldschmidt of Beatrice Cenci and Die Gewaltige Hahnrei. I am sure that Schoeck would have made another fine film music writer. The music often seems to trace its lineage back to the romantic operas of Weber. That said he is more progressive than in his musical Wolf-Ferrari.

The voices are not just beautiful voices. They are consistently engaging: combining acting and singing.

Just listen to the glorious upsurging ending of scene 5 for an example of the dynamic-heroic Schoeck. Scene 6 opens calmly. The aria Die Liebe Ist Die Liebe is full of ecstatic wonder. The Delius of the concert song Once I Passed through a Populous City came to mind. I wonder if Schoeck and Delius knew each other? There are certainly parallels with the operatic Delius. Massimilla ends as it began, sinking back into peace. The last two acts are meltingly wonder-struck with creamy high-lying singing from Edith Mathis.

Going by the German only libretto there are small cuts here and there e.g. In Lass Mich in scene 4.

Although the sound quality is just fine or better this is an old set of CDs dating from 1987. I had trouble playing each of the two discs on my 1990 Hitachi CD unit but they played without problems in my more recent Philips player. It might be worth checking any set first although going by my experience you are unlikely to have problems if your player is less than eight years old. I mention this because I have very rarely had problems with playing CDs. A failure on my old machine is very unusual.

It is interesting to note that the later operas have all been recorded and should (sometimes with some effort) be accessible to all. The gorgeously romantic Venus (1919-20) is on MGB, the charging and brassily metallic Penthesilea (1924-5) is on Orfeo, the ballad-like Vom Fischer und Syner Fru on Acanta, this Massimilla Doni (1934-5) and finally the backward looking manic-Gothick Schloss Durande (1937-39) in substantial historic excerpts on Jecklin.

The three early works await premiere recordings and (presumably) first performances in modern times. They are Erwin and Elmire (1911-16), Don Ranudo (1917-19) from which the Hispanic and castanet clicking serenade on CPO was extracted and the so-called ‘pantomimic scene’ Das Wandbild.

Anyone who has enjoyed the emerging operatic world of Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky and Goldschmidt should explore - this golden opera.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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