In the years after the first world war many composers found themselves struggling to take up where they had left off. Those who retained one foot in the romantic era often turned towards music that was elegiac, inward, haunted by images of death or farewell.
In his mid-30s the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck found his career at a turning point on this cusp of romanticism. His opera Venus had just enjoyed a notable success and the song-cycle Elegie, composed in 1922 during an intense and unhappy relationship, was to further his international reputation.
For all that Elegie remains a rarity today. Live performances are few and far between, probably because the ensemble of 15 instruments, which casts a highly charged and nostalgic atmosphere over the music, is not so easy to assemble in the concert hall.
Leading German song recitalist Christian Gerhaher has been a fine champion of Schoeck before and is so again here. He judges to a nicety how far he can underplay the intensity suggested in these romantic poems by Lenau and Eichendorff, and the Kammerorchester Basel, directed by Heinz Holliger, offers strong support, creating a hothouse of fevered and desolate emotions.
The cycle as a whole is a 20th-century counterpart to Schubert’s Winterreise. Here again is the jilted lover roaming through gloomy groves, bewailing the spring that may never return, and yet Schoeck’s post-Freudian world of angst and despair, dreams and nightmares, takes the listener memorably into a more modern, troubled age.
‘Schoeck: Elegie’ is released by Sony Classical