Elegie Op. 36
Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Kammerorchester Basel/Heinz Holliger
Sony Classical 19439963302 57:46 mins
Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck’s 1923 Elegie is a sequence of 24 settings of texts by the great Romantic poets Nikolaus Lenau and Joseph Eichendorff. This music of ‘farewell, alienation and loneliness’, as we’re told, ostensibly suits Gerhaher. His now characteristic vibrato-less and detached sound crafts a damaged protagonist who hardly sings, but mostly speaks on pitch (albeit with faultless intonation). However, Elegie lacks the stylistic variety of better-known cycles. Schoeck tends to set text regularly, syllabically and almost mechanically, often to opaque and static orchestration, resulting in many similar-sounding passages.
Moments of variety are welcome. The first ‘Waldlied’ is energetic. The exquisite poem ‘Zweifelnder Wunsch’ inspires sublime harmonies within an otherwise plodding setting; if only Gerhaher would be more generous with his beautiful voice! Rather, the closing ‘Ich liebe dich’ sounds like a medical report. Similarly, the finely-crafted ‘An den Wind’ and ‘Kommen und Scheiden’ are bafflingly neutral in this performance.
I can see why Gerhaher equates a detached, almost deadened rendition with late-Romantic alienation. But this not unflawed music needs more warmth and variety to relieve its claustrophobia, reveal moments of interest and render its protagonist sympathetic. Unfortunately, much of the music lies quite low in the voice, resulting in occasional problems of balance and colouristic sameness. Songs like ‘Verlorenes Glück’, which exploit Gerhaher’s magnificent upper range, reveal far more humanity, so are outstandingly moving. More of this is needed to console and carry us through Schoeck’s bleak music.