“Buried Alive” unearths Roaring 20s classics

This release presents three works from the late 1920s. It was a time of reinvention. The First World War swept away the conventions of the Edwardian Age. Composers (and other artists) developed new forms of expression, that incorporated various elements of prewar aesthetics. Arthur Honegger, Othmar Schoeck, and Dmitri Mtropoulous were among them — each choosing to take a slightly different way forward.

Honneger’s “Rugby, (Mouvement symphonique) is the most familiar of the three works (being part of a trilogy that includes “Pacific 321.” The music, though not specifically programmatic, effectively depicts the conflict of sport. Motifs move back and forth, clashing with increasing energy until one remains to finish the piece in triumph.

Dmitri Mitropoulos is best remembered as a conductor, but he also composed early in his career. His Concerto Grosso isn’t a neo-classical work. Mitropoulos was an admirer of Arnold Schoenberg. The Concerto Grosso is a study in atonality and expressionism, framed in Baroque forms, such as the French overture, and treatments, such as fugues and canons.

The eponymous composition, “Buried Alive” is the longest piece in the program. Othmar Schoeck greatly admired Hugo Wolf, and the bulk of his catalog is lieder. “Lebendig begraben” (Buried Alive), is a mature work, with Schoeck pushing against convention with exotic harmonies and obscured key centers.

The song cycle for baritone and orchestra sets a series of poems by Swiss poet Gottfried Keller. The poet is literally buried alive. The poems are contemplations of his situation and events from his life, which ebbs away at the conclusion of the poem.

Baritone Michael Nagy delivers what seems like a stream of consciousness monologue. Schoeck knew how to write for the voice — and Nagy knows how to bring Schoeck’s music to life. “Buried Alive’ isn’t operatic in gestures, but it is in emotional content.

Leon Botstein conducts the Orchestra Now in some fine performances. “Rugby” has the necessary energy, and the Concerto Grosso the required precision. But it’s “Buried Alive” where the superb musicianship of the conductor and orchestra come together (along with the soloist). Schoeck’s score provides context for the voice. And it also wraps around the voice in a way that continually evokes claustrophobia.

Highly recommended.

Buried Alive
Honegger, Schoek, Mitropoulos
Michael Nagy, baritone
The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge Records 9540


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