CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Dip Your Ears, No. 56 (Zemlinsky Delights)

available at Amazon
Conlon / Gürzenich

available at Amazon
Complete Choral Works & Orchestral Songs,
Conlon / Gürzenich / Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt, Albert, Schmidt, Volle

available at Amazon
The Mermaid et al.,
Conlon / Gürzenich

available at Amazon
The Mermaid et al.,
Dausgaard / Danish RSO

Alexander Zemlinsky is one of the many semi-famous composers I adore; part of a group to which belong several early to late Romantic composers of distinctly second – sometimes third – rank, namely Messrs. Ries, Raff, Onslow, Jadin, Rott, Wellesz, Wilms, Saygun, Schreker, Pfitzner, von Schillings, Reznicek, Schoeck, Szymanowski. They span a stylistic period that ranges from post-Mozartian/early Beethoven to the onset of Modernism (the break is audible between Wellesz’s Fourth and Fifth Symphony). Among these, I have clear favorites. Pfitzner, Ries, the genius Szymanowski, and – Zemlinsky. So it is with particular pleasure that I see EMI regurgitate its Zemlinsky recordings at budget price. So far, three recordings that James Conlon made with the Cologne Orchestra have been reissued – the choral works and orchestral songs lumped together on one “GEMINI” twofer and the symphonies nos. 1 & 2 on the budget label EMI ‘Encore’.

Missing from the reissues is still Zemlinsky’s most famous and arguably best orchestral work, the tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) and the beautiful Lyric Symphony. That recording was my first exposure to Zemlinsky and the beginning of a lasting love – but truth be told, Conlon has very strong competition here, in particular from the excellent Thomas Dausgaard and, in SACD sound, Antony Beaumont (both on Chandos). Where Conlon, to the best of my knowledge, has no competition (Chailly, the other notable Zemlinsky proponent, has recorded a few psalms spread out on various discs... and even so, it is difficult to imagine these works done any better) are those works that combine orchestra and voice. And these works are stunningly beautiful, too. Running the gamut from Mahler (who conducted Zemlinsky's first opera and whose later wife, Alma, he almost snagged) to early Schoenberg (whose counterpoint teacher he was briefly and who married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde) and – in the orchestral songs – Richard Strauss, this is a high point of late Romantic, chromatic writing for big forces. Unlike Mahler, Zemlinsky is not so concerned with creating a bigger canvas in this post-Tristan-chord world; instead, he goes for squeezing the music a little harder, still, for its last drops of tonality. He does this without ever losing sight of a lush musical language, easily enjoyed and understood by anyone who can take Wagner or late Strauss. In the orchestral songs, one could be excused for thinking of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The symphonies are a different kettle of fish. Here he can write a slow movement that has a melodic sweetness we find in Grieg, only to move on to pre-Mahlerian, perhaps Sinding-like (another more or less obscure composer I love) structures. Great works? Unlike the choral works, which probably are (singers like Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt help!), the symphonies won't make a lasting claim to greatness, per se. But eminently, thoroughly enjoyable they are - which is more than you can say about much else - and at such a bargain price, who could resist?

(Alex von Zemlinsky's consequent personal story was a less than happy affair, at least its end. His father converted to Judaism to marry Zemlinsky's Jewish mother, and Alex was raised in the Viennese Sephardic community. In 1899, he converted to Protestantism -- like Schoenberg, or Mahler [in Mahler's case it was Catholicism]. After the Anschluss Zemlinsky fled to Manhattan via Prague, where he arrived on December 23rd. Less than four years later he died in the U.S. in the company of his wife but generally isolated, jobless, unproductive, ill.)

See also: Dip Your Ears, No. 67 (More Zemlinksy)


Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, while your promotion of Zemlinsky is balanced and highly interesting (and unlike that of some bloggers I know who think that Z. is the unheralded genius opera composer of the 20th century; despite his setting of symbolic libretti which make less sense than most from early in the last century), I will take exception to your calling Karol Szymanowski second or third rate and grouping him with Ries, Raff, Onslow, Jadin, Rott, Wellesz, Wilms, Saygun, Schreker, Pfitzner, von Schilling, Rezniek,
and Schoeck.

In my opinion, Szymanowski is up there with Kodaly and Hindemith -- both world class composers -- and I would venture that his works might actually survive those of the other two. [Washington area Choruses should do penance for every market-driven performance of Orff's Carmina Burana with a performance of Szymanowski's sublime Stabat Mater. Can you believe that Washington Choruses would actually publically announce that there are only six or so works that they can financially justify producing each season in Washington's current classical choral marketplace? Where is Antal Dorati when we so badly need him -- or his spiritual heirs -- to bring back to Washington, DC choral masterpieces by such composers as Messiaen and Gerhard -- to mention two composers who Dorati actually recorded in Washington, D.C. back in the humanist 20th century?]

Also, the Wolf Trap Opera performed Krol Roger (King Roger) in the early 1980s... Now, if only the Washington National Opera would have paired, next autumn, Duke Bluebeard's Castle with King Roger, Washington might have briefly sustained itself as a center of interest in the world operatic universe [after the Nicholas Maw North American premiere of Sophie's Choice].

Regarding the EMI double Zemlinsky album, I recall actually purchasing it based upon your own recommendation. While the interpretative and acoustic quality was quite high,
I recall that the lack of any texts or notes made it less than the bargain that it seemed. This is often a problem with those reissues from back catalogues -- humanistic packaging values are lost.

jfl said...

True... the packaging and lack of libretti is a bummer in the new edition. Still, the music is glorious... (the text probably be downloaded).

Szymanowski is always someone I am interested in, I fly to his music like a moth -- but whenever I arrive, I forget why I did go to it... it never yet has rewarded me nearly as well as my expectations would have made me think. Curious.

What you say about the Washington Chorus is disturbing but not surprising. NSO has trouble selling the Rostropovich/Upshaw concert. The Dutilleux composition is "keeping people away". FOR SHAME. What kind of a town is this? Washington should just have a Salon orchestra and play Mantovani all season long. Obviously we don't appreciate a good Symphony. In New York, that thing would be sold out in a, well... New York minute. (And you know that the DC audiences don't stay away because Dvorak 8 is too 'been-there-done-that' for them, or because they think "Slava" is not a good conductor...

Anyway... my rant.

Garth Trinkl said...

Jens, if your German-born artistic/administrative colleagues over at the National Symphony Orchestra are having problems selling-out this week's Conductor Laureate Rostropovich and Classical/New Music Super Star Dawn Upshaw concert, they have only themselves to blame. (I heard
the equally fine Valdine Anderson, substituting for Ms Upshaw, sing the Dutilleux "Correspondences [2003]" with the Berlin Phil, under Sir Simon Rattle, in San Francisco.)

I see that at this late date, there are even a few rare $22 tickets left for the performances (you might have to order by telephone; because the Kennedy Center web-site won't sell you a single ticket, if there is only one pair of 'introductory' patron-level $22 tickets left in the system.) [There are also, as you point out, the $10 tickets which may or may not still be available to properly accredited full-time students willing to undergo lie-detector test at the box office 'Will call' window.]

The next price up from $22 is about $49 for a single ticket -- in the far center second balcony. [Perhaps it doesn't help the NSO and the KC, that the National Gallery of Art - East Wing is hosting another super star singer, Ute Lemper, in a FREE new music concert Saturday at 4:30 PM. You might think that the National Gallery and the National Symphony might someday learn how to jointly plan informally and cross-market their classical music events; but that day appears to be far off.]

And, Jens, frankly I don't think that Mr Rostropovich has chosen a very strong program -- one that fully brings to the foreground why Washington should feel exceptionally fortunate to have had him (and Antal Dorati before him) as its maturing orchestra's music director. You might think that the NSO, if it were serious, would have asked Rostropovich to program some of the major classical compositions that he commissioned and first championed in the twentieth century. That is how a functioning national classical arts organization -- one that practices as well as professes 'excellence' -- would function. Instead, Rostropovich's more integrated and serious programming [Shostakovich]is saved for next fall, during a season when any drop in ticket sales can be offset by the hyped-sales from the NSO current music director's end-of-tenure, "Serious Fun" classical music weekend.

Gotta run...