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19.10.06

Zemlinksy-Dehmel-Schoenberg Montage

Alexander Zemlinsky, 1871-1942Alexander Zemlinsky is one of those B-list composers who may not get much play in the mainstream classical world. Fortunately, at the Temple of Reason known as the Library of Congress, there are people who devote their lives to musical archeology, and in fact their collection has a good number of important Zemlinsky sources. For the library's most recent free concert on Wednesday night, members of a newly formed group from Boston, Montage Music Society, gave a program of music by Zemlinsky and his more famous friend and brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg, inspired by the decadent, psychologically charged poetry of Richard Dehmel. The many empty seats were probably left unoccupied by people who feared such a program would consist of atonal and twelve-tone music, but the pieces performed sounded no more chromatic or dissonant than Richard Strauss.

Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty presented two sets of Dehmel songs, five by Zemlinsky and four by Schoenberg, with the group's pianist, Debra Ayers. The Zemlinsky songs were harmonically lush, teetering only occasionally on the chromatic edge, and most of the texts were not particularly shocking. Entbietung, about a man ordering a woman to prepare herself for an amorous night, pulsed with an ostinato figure in the piano accompaniment, the embodiment of a lustful obsession. Perhaps it was just this selection of songs, but Schoenberg, unlike his conservative colleague, seemed to have chosen much more controversial texts. At the end of Erwartung, a woman's pale hand beckons a man into their red villa, ushering in a smutty postlude of corrupt, extended harmony. In Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kahm, Jesus asks Mary Magdalen to give him her colden comb, her silken sponge, and her heart (gasp!).

Baty's powerful voice struck the necessary full-throated Straussian tone at the most demanding moments, like the booming ending of Erhebung, as the narrator's sense of self soars above the clouds toward the sun. The best song, however, was the more expressionistic Warnung, with many hints of the later, atonal Schoenberg. The narrator is a violent, abusive lover, violence incarnated in the jagged piano part. The voice concludes in wild shrieks, as the narrator remembers the dog he poisoned on behalf of the listener. "Du: denk an meinem Hund!" Baty's voice had impressive heft but in the few subtle, quiet moments in these sets, she was less sure.

Other Reviews:

Gail Wein, Montage Gives New Life To Zemlinsky's Cello Sonata (Washington Post, October 20)
The instrumental selections began with the North American premiere of Zemlinsky's cello sonata in A minor, a work that was lost for over a century. For cellist Marc Moskovitz, who is working on a biography of Zemlinsky and is a self-confessed "Zemlinsky nut," it was a significant moment. The sonata is a young work, an earnest, Brahmsian exercise in Romantic yearning and musical form. Ayers and Moskovitz gave a performance that, while not perfect, gave a good sense of the piece. The second half was given over to a performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899), an early work for string sextet, arranged for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann. I love this piece, a musical description of the late-night walk and conversation of the man and woman in Richard Dehmel's poem Zwei Menschen (Two people) from the collection called Weib und Welt (Woman and world). Schoenberg finished the piece while on vacation with Zemlinsky and his sister Mathilde, who would become Schoenberg's wife. I was not impressed with this performance, but that is probably because of my memories of the radiant performance of the Vienna Piano Trio at Shriver Hall I heard last February.

Only at the Library of Congress, can the violinist and cellist of a performing group be given Stradivari instruments to play, while a selection of scores and other materials relating to the music played in the concert can be shown in the lobby. (The Library of Congress owns major collections of both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky materials.) There were several letters from Zemlinsky to Schoenberg (all signed "Alex"), printed scores (Zemlinsky's Entbietung and Meeraugen and Schoenberg's Warnung), and manuscripts (including Schoenberg's copy of the original sextet version of Verklärte Nacht and Steuermann's arrangement).

2 comments:

jfl said...

I am so glad you went - I was not going to forgive myself for not having made it. At least SOMEONE heard Zemlinsky.

Henry Holland said...

One of the best things about my local opera company, the Los Angeles Opera, getting James Conlon as its music director after Kent Nagano left is that he's a huge fan of Zemlinsky, Schreker and Korngold. He's promised to program their stuff and I'd love to hear a double bill of Florentinische Tragodie/Der Zwerg, one of Schreker's glorious operas or Die Tote Stadt.

I recently got Mr. Conlon's recording of Zemlinsky's Der Traumgorge and its a winner. Just page after page of lush, beautiful music with lovely vocal lines and a nice story, too.