- Penthesilea, opera in 1 act, Op. 39
Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck was acutely attuned to the newest musical developments, and while his musical language was firmly post-Romantic, during the 1920s the innovations of Berg and Stravinsky enriched his expressive vocabulary. His music of this period sounds much more progressive than that of Richard Strauss, to whom he is sometimes compared, but he later rejected modernism and returned to a more conventional tonality. "Penthesilea," written between 1923 and 1925, based on the myth of the savage Amazon queen, is a brutally violent and searingly dramatic score. Using a bizarre orchestra with a bass-heavy string section (with only four violins), augmented percussion and wind sections (with 10 clarinets), and two pianos, Schoeck creates a sound-world that's unlike quite anything else. The music is almost relentlessly ferocious; it's only alleviated by a love duet in the middle that the composer added later as a respite from the score's nervous energy. The opera receives a terrific performance in this live 1999 recording with the Sinfonieorchester Basel and Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor Brünn, conducted by Mario Venzago. Both orchestra and chorus give their all, playing and singing with an intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef is stunningly compelling in the title role; she makes "Penthesilea" into an elemental force of nature, driven by inchoate primal instincts. She manages to produce a full, beautiful tone even when her character is shrieking with rage. American bass-baritone James Johnson is less effective as Achilles; while he has the large, stentorian voice the role requires, his German diction is distractingly sloppy. The supporting roles are all well taken. The sound is good for a live recording, with excellent balance and only a little stage noise. Standing outside the mainstream operatic traditions of its era, "Penthesilea" is a strong and intriguing work that should be of interest to any fan of modern opera.