Schoeck: Buried Alive, Exhumed

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Reading Chris Walton’s biography of Othmar Schoeck is a fascinating trip into a different time, just a century ago. But it’s also an object lesson in “never meet your heroes”. Although sympathetically portrayed, Walton does not flinch from the fact that Schoeck was a real piece of work. If you already love his wildly post-romantic yet hard-to-categorize idiom, it makes you hurry right back to his music. And if you aren’t there yet, don’t let it distract you from seeking out the music anyway.

In the range of Schoeck’s work, the song cycle Lebendig begraben (Buried Alive) for baritone, large orchestra, organ, and distant chorus is positioned somewhere in the uncomfortable middle, between a work such as the happily, digestibly romantic Korngoldian Violin Concerto and the masterclass in dark, almost Bergian post-tonal harmonic writing that is the Notturno. Written in 1926 and 40 to 50 minutes long, Lebendig begraben Op. 40 is closer to the two famous symphonic song cycles before it, minus the chinoiserie: Mahler’s 1908 Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (1923). The title gives away the fact that the subject isn’t cheery. “Thoughts of one buried alive” (the full title of the Gottfried Keller poems that supplied Schoeck with the text) does not make for chirpy music but for low-lying, deliciously dark associative, atmospheric music with rich (but not thick) and freely expressive orchestration.

This is the work that so impressed James Joyce that led him to make the statement that has turned into a quotable favorite when writing about Schoeck, namely that he was Joyce’s favorite composer. If you want to hear what Joyce heard, this recording–only the second since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s from 1962 (DG, now Claves) to appear on CD; Günter von Kannen’s, on a Swiss Atlantis LP, hasn’t made it into the digital age–is your best bet.

Michael Nagy (pronounced “Nudge”) performs the alternate version for baritone, not the original for bass, which is also what Dieskau purported to sing. But not only does Dieskau’s voice sound higher than Nagy’s on account of their different timbre, he also plays fast and loose with the score and transposes phrase-endings or entire stanzas up an octave, wherever it suits him. Schoeck probably approved (or wouldn’t have dared to object), and in any case it works quite well. It allows Dieskau to avoid his lower register and add color which he can then take out again, to great effect.

Nagy sticks to the letter of the score, and in doing so achieves a much darker tone–and not only on those actually lower notes that ask for a well-developed bottom range, something Nagy duly delivers. What works better? Trading color for darkness is probably a toss-up in a piece depicting a voice from the grave. In any case, Nagy’s dramatic skills, honed as one of the more in-demand opera baritones of his generation, serve him well, especially as much of this haunting monologue approximates Sprechgesang. Bridge, thoughtfully, includes full texts and translations in their fine booklet.

Leon Botstein, as he is wont to do, gets more out of the music and the orchestra than you might think he should. Working from the repertoire outward, his music-making has a mission. The telephone-student-orchestra “TŌN” is not the last word in refinement but plays very well and, what’s more, with dedication so that it has no comparison to fear from the (well recorded but spatially oddly separated) RSO Berlin under Fritz Rieger with Dieskau. You don’t have to listen to this music for long to be able to imagine what a dog’s breakfast a bored “top-notch” orchestra could have made of this taxing music.

The overture to this disc is, suitably, a lively, very much above-average version of fellow Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Rugby. The closer is more interesting still: Dmitri Mitropoulos’ Concerto Grosso is a substantial, 25-minute symphonic concerto. Granted, it’s more interesting than long-term satisfying; the Allegro of the second movement appears aimless with its scurrying instrumental runs into myriad directions and lumbering Largo conclusion. The following Chorale makes up for it; there’s an ethereal, modern-lyrical beauty and tenderness to it–and just enough for 10 minutes. The Allegro finale has enough drive to jolt us back to an appreciation of the musical thoughts of the conducting genius. For the dedicated repertoire-explorer, this is unmissable, and casual wanderers along paths less traveled will be reasonably well rewarded.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: Buried Alive
Reference Recording: Schoeck: Fischer-Dieskau/Rieger (Claves), Honegger: Takuo Yuasa (Naxos); Bernstein (Sony); Scherchen (Westminster), Mitropoulos: This one

  • Michael Nagy (baritone)
  • The Orchestra Now, The Bard Festival Chorale, Leon Botstein

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