Othmar Schoeck: Revue Elegie – a cycle bound by quiet melancholy | Classical music

Othmar Schoeck’s song cycles, some with piano, others with instrumental ensemble or large orchestra, represent one of the last great flourishings of the tradition of romantic songs. Outside of his native Switzerland at least, his music is far less heard than it deserves, but baritone Christian Gerhaher at least seems determined to further his cause; in 2009 he released a recording of Schoeck’s Notturno for voice and string quartet, and now he has turned to Elegie, a collection of settings of poems by Eichendorff and Lenau, completed in 1922.

Schoeck: Elegie album cover.
Photo: Sony Classic

It was the first of Schoeck’s melody cycles with ensemble, using a 15-instrument group including piano, timpani and tam-tam, from which he extracts striking textures and colors. Although at this time Schoeck’s music was still rooted in the late Romanticism of Brahms and his teacher Reger, it clearly showed his awareness of Second Viennese School Expressionism – with occasional echoes even of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – even if only in its later version. works that he would explore on the fringes of this musical world in a more coherent way.

No narrative thread runs through the 24 songs that make up Elegie; instead, the pervasive silent melancholy of the settings, and the generally darkly hued instrumental writing that surrounds them, ties the entire cycle together. For Gerhaher’s recording with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, the string lines seem to have been considerably reinforced – the score lists seven players, while the libretto lists 18 – although Heinz Holliger’s conducting matches and balances very precisely the vocals and the ensemble, and many of the most telling moments often pair the baritone with just a solo instrumental line.

The vocal writing is broad and there are times when the lines drop rather low for Gerhaher’s comfort, and then his sentences sometimes lose their usual pristine definition and sense of form. Otherwise, however, his performance is wonderfully polished and caring, the baritone savoring and coloring every word as precisely as you’d expect him to, in perfect collaboration with Holliger, who as a conductor has always been fascinated by composers who don’t fall into comfortable historical hierarchies. Elegie may not be as original as some of Schoeck’s later works, but it’s still a remarkable score, brooding and at times rather intimidating, and nonetheless worth exploring.

Comments are closed.