Othmar Schoeck: Notturno (ECM New Series 2061)

Othmar Schoeck
Notturno

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Diane Pascal violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner violoncello
Recorded December 2007, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you continue to dream
Forgetfulness will close your heart’s wound:
The soul sees its sufferings
And itself floats by.
–Nikolaus Lenau

Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) was a Swiss composer whose musical journey came to a head in Notturno, his most intensely personal work. Schoeck was one of a generation of artists who set out to establish Switzerland as a major presence in European music. Like his contemporaries Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin, he sought to break free from the Brahmsian idealism with which many associated his countrymen in favor of a darker, more tragic stripe of sonic culture. An orchestral conductor and piano accompanist by profession, Schoeck was no mere dabbler in the compositional arts. Yet despite the fact that no fewer than eight operas, four hundred songs, and a smattering of instrumental works flowed from his pen, we hear so little of him on the concert stage. Says Chris Walton, author of Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works and of the album’s liner notes, “That Switzerland should have been home to the cutting edge of art might at first seem odd; but as much as it look to us to be at the center of the map of Europe, it has, in a real sense, long been situated at its ‘borders.’” Such contradictory geography is the seat of Schoeck’s output. At once gravid and untetherable, its rejection of overt nationalist or folk tendencies ripened the composer for easy dismissal during the inter-war years. Though staunchly allied to his homeland, his anti-cosmopolitan music is characterized more by its impermanence than by any socio-cultural currency.

Notturno was composed between 1931 and 1933, and sets the world-weary verse of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) and one fragment by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) for voice and string quartet. The cycle is threaded by an elusive leitmotif of regret over a failed extra-marital affair. There is a mournful quality to this music that one also finds, as Heinz Holliger points out in an introductory note, in the tearful lyricism of Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg. Over the course of five movements, we find ourselves lost in a forest of shadows, hoping for any sign of moonlight to break the silence with its song. All we get, however, are words dripping with liquid night, each a cloud waiting to burst into storm. Replete with moisture, flora, and withered emotions, Lenau’s sentiments range from cynical (“In consternation I desired / That we both should die”) to resigned morbidity (“I love this gentle death”), but always with an “unmannered” (to borrow Holliger’s term) sadness. Bavarian baritone Christian Gerhaher shapes each syllable like a blind carver: that is, as if with his hands and in darkness.

The music is not without its twinge of hope in the fifth movement, in which Keller’s words drip like honey from Gerhaher’s lips. Listen to the gorgeousness of his high note, lifting us ever so briefly into dawn in the final lines:

My soul is as undefiled as a child and will not weigh down your shafts of light. I will keep my sights set on those distant places to where we will travel.

as the violins pour down like those very shafts of light, and try not to be moved. Still, by this point we have grown too used to Lenau’s tattered garments to shrug them off. We also know, as in his last words, that only sadness awaits us in place of sadness, such that solitude seems but a fantasy:

Oh, loneliness, how willingly would I drink
From your fresh forest bottle!

For all its darkness, this is a translucent recording. The performances are raw and impassioned, the Rosamundes adding to an already exquisite résumé. But the real merit here is its voice. Surely, the choice of Gerhaher was not accidental, as the young baritone perfected his technique with the great Liedermeister Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who happens to have been one of Schoeck’s most ardent interpreters. His presence establishes an unbroken chain between composer, score, and studio, at last linking the fortunate listener to nothing short of a hallmark achievement.

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