Othmar Schoeck’s song cycles, some with piano, others with instrumental ensemble or full orchestra, represent one of the last great flowerings of the romantic lieder tradition. Outside his native Switzerland at least, his music is heard far less often than it deserves to be, but the baritone Christian Gerhaher at least seems determined to promote its cause; in 2009 he released a recording of Schoeck’s Notturno for voice and string quartet, and now he has turned his attention to Elegie, a collection of settings of poems by Eichendorff and Lenau, which was completed in 1922.
It was the first of Schoeck’s song cycles with ensemble, using a group of 15 instruments that includes piano, timpani and a tam-tam, from which he extracts some striking textures and colours. Though at this time Schoeck’s music was still rooted in the late Romanticism of Brahms and his teacher Reger, it clearly shows his awareness of the expressionism of the Second Viennese School – with occasional echoes even of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – though it was only in his later works that he would explore around the fringes of that musical world more consistently.
There is no narrative thread running through the 24 songs that make up Elegie; instead the pervading quiet melancholy of the settings, and the generally dark-hued instrumental writing that surrounds them, bind the whole cycle together. For Gerhaher’s recording with the Basel Chamber Orchestra the string lines appear to have been considerably reinforced – the score specifies seven players, whereas the booklet lists 18 – though Heinz Holliger’s conducting matches and balances the voice and the ensemble very precisely, and many of the most telling moments often twin the baritone with just a solo instrumental line.
The vocal writing is wide-ranging, and there are moments when the lines do go rather low for Gerhaher’s comfort, and then his phrases sometimes lose their usual immaculate definition and sense of shape. Otherwise, though, his performance is wonderfully careful and caring, with the baritone savouring and colouring every word as precisely as you would expect from him, in a 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 startlingly original as some of Schoeck’s later works, but it is still a remarkable score, brooding and at times rather intimidating, and well worth exploring nevertheless.