Anyone curious about the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky, or about the extensive series of CDs recorded in the late 1990s-early 2000s by James Conlon and the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne (Köln), has an excellent opportunity for sampling with this new 3-CD compilation from EMI. For the cost of a single full-price disc one can have about 3:45 of some of Zemlinsky’s best-known music, plus several rarities, all performed with intense commitment and skill. The package’s one conspicuous disappointment — to get it out of the way at once — is a lack of texts for the two major vocal works, the Lyric Symphony and Frülingsbegräbnis. (The Cymbeline Suite has one vocal number, “Hark, Hark, the Lark” in German, but it’s easy enough to look up Shakespeare’s lyric.) At least there is a new booklet essay, brief but well written, that provides a bit of background for each piece in chronological order.
Zemlinsky was a teacher and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and part of the circle of the so-called Second Viennese School. He remained a much more conservative composer than his pupil or the latter’s own disciples, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, but did considerably modify his style over the first three decades of the 20th Century. Disc 1 of the EMI set provides a telling contrast of the composer’s early and late periods. The Mermaid is a 45-minute tone poem in three movements, based on the bittersweet tale of Hans Christian Andersen. The composer conducted the world premiere in 1905 on the same program as the premiere of Schoenberg’s own epic tone poem of doomed lovers, Pelleas and Melisande — quite an evening! But Zemlinsky withdrew his own work from circulation shortly after the premiere, and listening to the two works side by side, one can venture a guess why. The Mermaid’s musical style looks back to the 19th Century, even compared to Richard Strauss’s tone poems of the 1890s, while Pelleas manages to be both nostalgically lush and searingly modern in sound, already “breathing the air of other planets” (to quote from a poem Schoenberg set to music). Still, The Mermaid, now rather frequently performed, offers its own satisfactions, with picturesque episodes of a storm at sea and plenty of yearning, thwarted love.
The Sinfonietta —dating from 1934, after Zemlinsky was driven from Berlin to Vienna by the Nazis, before his eventual flight to America — is quite a bit more astringent in tone, though still the work of a Late Romantic. The first movement, brisk but with kaleidoscopic moods, is difficult to pin down in terms of emotional affect, but the superb slow movement, labeled “Ballade,” is unquestionably tragic, though more restrained than, say, an adagio by Alban Berg (who admired the Sinfonietta). The finale is a fast Rondo with slower interludes, again complex or “abstract” in mood, though ending surprisingly with a simple D major chord. Though far from a miniature work, the 22-minute Sinfonietta is scored transparently, with frequent solos for woodwinds while the brass are used only sparingly in the climaxes. A 1982 LP on the Schwann label with Bernhard Klee and the Berlin Radio Symphony offers more of an X-ray vision of the piece, i.e., a leaner, more cutting sound that I find very fitting, especially in the first movement; Conlon and his EMI engineers achieve a warmer, softer-edged, “bigger” sound, unquestionably superior in audio quality, but lacking that edginess.
The major work on Disc 2 is the Lyric Symphony, generally considered to be Zemlinsky’s finest achievement outside of his opera and chamber music. (Berg quotes a theme from the symphony, sung to the words “You are my Own, my Own!” in his own Lyric Suite for string quartet, and dedicated the work to him as well.) Zemlinsky wrote to his publisher, “During the summer I have written something along the lines of Das Lied von der Erde,” and critics have been fond of making comparisons to Mahler’s masterpiece ever since the premiere in 1924. But there are few similarities, beyond both being “symphonies” that feature songs sung in alternation by two contrasting voices, and both based on “exotic” texts, ancient Chinese poems by Li Po for Mahler and contemporary Indian poems by Rabindranath Tagore for Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky’s seven movements are all joined to form one continuous piece, and he does not attempt to create an “Indian” or vaguely Central Asian sound, even for the second song, about a girl who throws her ruby necklace at the chariot of a young prince parading through her town.
Zemlinsky described the atmosphere of his Lyric Symphony as “deeply serious, yearning but unsensuous [unsinnlicher]” — I take it that he means not cheaply erotic as well as not too evocative of worldly sensations in general, though the very large orchestra certainly offers a riot of colors and stunning contrasts of volume as the vocalists sing of restlessness, fulfillment and willing farewells (“I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way”).
Of the three recordings I listened to, I must say that the great standout is Lorin Maazel’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady, a 1982 digital DG recording which I heard on LP. It’s currently available from Amazon as an MP3 download, but surely it will be reissued on CD for Maazel’s impassioned attention to the score, a fine performance by Varady, and the absolutely great singing of Fischer-Dieskau, who brings almost operatic drama to the first and fifth songs and supreme tenderness to the third and seventh, with thrilling sensitivity to the meaning of the words as well as musical accuracy. A 1994 Decca recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw is also worth hearing, with an excellent Håkan Hagegård, but I found Alessandra Marc less suited to the score, with annoying vocal scoops up to some of the high notes. Meanwhile, EMI’s reissue of Conlon’s 2002 recording brings out orchestral details I missed in the DG recording, and Conlon leads his orchestra to coruscating brilliance in the second song ("The Girl and the Prince). I found Bo Skovhus a bit pallid compared to Fischer-Dieskau and Hagegård, but Solie Isokoski has a lovely, youthful voice, perfect for the soprano songs, and like Fischer-Dieskau both word-sensitive and note-accurate.
EMI gives us a generous filler for this disc: seven orchestral preludes and interludes from five of Zemlinksy’s eight operas, their dates ranging from 1897 to 1936. I especially enjoyed the Prelude to the third act of The Chalk Circle (1931), which feels nervous and mocking, and another third-act Prelude, to King Candaules (1935-6), which is somber and impassioned.
Disc 3 offers three rarities. Zemlinsky was invited in 1913 to write incidental music for Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s unclassifiable romance-comedy-drama. The five-movement Suite for Large Orchestra begins with an imposingly dramatic Prelude, followed by a bleak adagio for a scene between Imogen and Pisanio, a delicately orchestrated tenor rendition of “Hark, Hark! The Lark!” (well sung by David Kuebler), a gentle Introduction to Act 4, and rousing battle music with fanfares to introduce Act 5. The 17-minute Suite would be a quite enjoyable concert-opener, all of its numbers worth hearing.
The cantata Frülingsbegräbnis (Spring’s Burial), based on a poem by Paul Heyse, is an early work, written in 1996-7 and revised in 1902-3; Conlon conducted the premiere of the revised version in 1997 and has recorded it here. With echoes of Mahler in the first section and Brahms’s choral music throughout, not to mention what seems like a quote from Tchaikowsky’s Pathetique Symphony at one point, the 24-minute cantata tells (to quote the program note) of a “cortege of animals and fairies who bear Spring, a beautiful youth, to his final resting place.” The final section begins stormily (summer arriving?) and ends with a disproportionately long orchestral passage, first quiet, then triumphant. With luxuriant casting of Deborah Voigt and Donnie Ray Albert in the brief solo parts (the baritone wrongly listed as a tenor in the booklet), Conlon and his Dusseldorf chorus provide a chance to hear a lovely, nearly forgotten work.
Last, and arguably least, is A Dance-Poem, from 1901. It was intended to be part of a ballet called The Triumph of Time, with a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but Mahler declined to have the ballet performed at the Vienna Opera and Zemlinsky tried to salvage what he had written as a four-movement concert suite (though it too was never performed in his lifetime). The first movement is stately but not vigorously rhythmic; some sprightly passages later on sound a bit more danceable. The second movement offers a graceful but sometimes lumbering waltz; the third is scherzo-like, with a fanfare to open but mostly playful piccolo and high string passages with an agreeable main tune. The finale, which is as long as the other three movements combined, opens with more stateliness, a fanfare leading into a moderately slow march, perhaps more suited to a pageant than a ballet. There are slow waltz interludes and other contrasting sections, but nothing I found engaging.
I haven’t heard the originals of these three discs, but the 3-pack provides very good sound, though without the sort of electrifying presence one would ideally want for music with such spectacular orchestral effects.