60186 - Schoeck: Fine performances of a work of questionable veracity

OTHMAR SCHOECK: Elegie, Op. 36 – Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone/ Mutare Ensemble/ Gerhard Muller-Hornbach, leader – NCA

Fine performances of a work of questionable veracity.

Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) found himself between the crossroads of Romanticism and the techniques of the new century, just like a lot of composers, and most of those who leaned towards the old got buried in the rush to modernism that occurred shortly after WWI. The composer’s over 400 lieder has often led to him being considered the greatest song writer to emerge from Switzerland, yet his reputation remains somewhat provincial and country-bound. To a degree this is unfair, as he is capable of writing much affecting music; on the other hand, productivity is not necessarily an indication of talent, and a lot of his music leaves me cold.

Unfortunately this is the case with the work in question, his Elegie cycle based on texts of Nickolas Lenau and Joseph von Eichendorff having to do with melancholy, sorrow, etc. (there are unfortunately no translations provided in this production). I find that, despite moments of innovative chamber scoring and effective textures, his rather lugubrious and declamatory vocal line, even with moments of real melodic interest, fail to convince the listener of any sort of composer sincerity behind the musical sentiment. The music comes across as so much of a “woe is me” depressive atmosphere that one has to struggle to anticipate the next song in the series. Other composers have taken texts even worse in terms of content (look at the Kindertotenlider) and created something profoundly moving and even hopeful. Schoeck takes us to the cliff’s edge and pushes us over.
The performances here are outstanding as far as I can tell—instrumentalists and the wonderful Klaus Mertens have their grip on the rudder of this doomed ship, and the surround sound is immediate and full of impact. But I would encourage anyone interested to sample first. There is only one other recording out there to my knowledge, that by Andreas Schmidt and Werner Andreas Albert on CPO. But it would be hard to imagine it topping this one if the mood strikes you.

-- Steven E. Ritter
Audiophile Audition 22.02.2010