Othmar Schoeck: Das stille Leuchten. Clara O’Brien, mezzo-soprano; James Douglass, piano; Ablaze Records: ar-00063; Duration 60:00; $13.99 via Ablaze Records.

Are you in the market for an NC-created, unique, and passionately performed album of modern-ish lieder? Or perhaps you just want to be transported to the Swiss mountains for an hour? Look no further than Clara O’Brien and James Douglass performing Othmar Schoeck’s Das stille Leuchten (The Silent Shining), a two-part, 28-song cycle that wraps up neatly in one hour. This album was recorded and edited in the Triad at Ovation Sound.

Having hardly heard of Schoeck myself, I did some digging and found this interesting article from The New Yorker. For those looking for a more thorough account, Chris Walton’s 2009 biography is a helpful source. Schoeck was known most prominently in his home country of Switzerland during his lifetime and not as much elsewhere (fast forward to 1970s Amherst College in MA, which saw the creation of the “Othmar Schoeck Memorial Society for the Preservation of Unusual and Disgusting Music”). At the time of its initial creation, sure, much of Schoeck’s later music was likely regarded as too dissonant or unpredictable compared to the late-Romantic norms he emerged from. Influences of Honegger and other members of Le six were no doubt informative on Schoeck’s later works, and as a result, Schoeck’s collection of compositions span a fascinating spread through the early days of classical modernism while typically maintaining a firm grip on tonality. Das stille Leuchten, one of the songbooks among the hundreds of Lieder Schoeck composed, is one such example, composed in 1946 following the collapse of his reputation (for further reading: search Dürande) and his literal collapse from a heart attack after conducting in 1944. The twenty-eight songs were written during a nine-week stay at a lakeside village south of Zurich; the lush poetry of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer no doubt echoing the composer’s own gorgeous Swiss surroundings while he worked. A brief piano postlude included in the final song was composed soon after, and then the whole songbook saw its premiere in September 1946.

That brings us to Clara O’Brien and James Douglass, who surely many North Carolinians (and audiences beyond) have heard of; the two current UNCG professors have recorded a faithful iteration of Schoeck’s moody work. Both internationally-working musicians have several other projects in their recorded repertoire as well. In this album, O’Brien’s entrancingly dark mezzo glides through the melodic lines in a way that belies any unpredictable leaps and odd intervals that appear in Schoeck’s early modern stylings. Her diction was not only crystal clear, but also became an entire dramatic element in itself, a satisfying element of German art song performance. Although this recording is audio-only, I felt the emotions of O’Brien’s storytelling, with the kind of performance that makes you want to lean forward in your seat. Meanwhile, even the most random-sounding passages felt inevitable under Douglass’ adept hands.

I particularly enjoyed the ninth song, “Frühling Triumphator” (“Spring Triumphant”), a happy and reverently curious extolling of spring – I could hear the curiosity in O’Brien’s voice, set to Douglass’s pastoral backing. The melody here was more catchy and memorable than many of Schoeck’s others. Exemplary of the variety contained within Das stille Leuchten, this song is bookended by contrasts. It’s preceded by “Lenzfahrt” (“Spring Voyage”), which based on the title sounds like it could be similar to “Spring Triumphant,” but instead it is much more serious and musing. The meandering melody was sung fretfully but with gorgeous swells by O’Brien, the lyrics lamenting the inevitability of aging compared to the passing of the seasons. Chromaticism in both instruments heightened the uneasy feeling, but it definitely made both musicians’ phrasing more fascinating to listen to. The tenth song, “Unruhige Nacht,” or “Restless Night” is the shortest of all 28, clocking in at 45 seconds, but it certainly packs an anxious punch: fretful, constant clustered chords from Douglass set the mood for O’Brien’s lilting lyrics. I loved how the pair took advantage of the synchronized two-note phrasing offered in Schoeck’s composition.

I feel that the confidence of O’Brien’s and Douglass’ performance of Das stille Leuchten lends itself well to several approaches: you could certainly turn it on and get completely lost in a meditative state without ever glancing at the translations, or you could pore carefully over each line as you listen. Either way would prove to be a worthwhile experience. I found myself wanting to explore and analyze the relationship between the piano and the vocal line (harder to do without the sheet music in my hands, but still). The text painting imagery in the piano is not quite as overt here as with solidly romantic Lieder, but that fact provides an interesting creative license to any listener who would rather create their own interpretation.

The only other soprano recording of Das stille Leuchten that I could find is from 1994, a Swiss output from German Hedwig Fassbender and pianist Aziz Kortel. There are several earlier recordings performed by baritones as well. Naturally, the O’Brien recording sounds a bit more crispy and resonant thanks to improved recording quality in the 21st century, and from a quick comparison I noticed perhaps more rubato compared to the Fassbender recording.

You can check O’Brien’s and Douglass’s Das stille Leuchten out for yourself on Spotify or for free on Youtube as well, and I would recommend listening with noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds for the full engrossing effect. The fluid dynamism of this pair and impeccable recording quality make this album a must-hear.