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Briefly Noted: 'The Mermaid'

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A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon has devoted much of his career to the revival of forgotten works and composers from the early 20th century. One of those composers is Alexander Zemlinsky, one-time teacher of Arnold Schoenberg and eventually his relative, when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde. A little-known tone poem by Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, was given its premiere in 1905, on a concert sponsored by the Society of Creative Musicians that also featured Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky's 45-minute work, for a massive orchestra [4 3 4 3 - 6 3 4 1 - timp, perc(2), hp(2), str], is based on the same Hans Christian Andersen story (Den lille Havfrue) that was (loosely) the basis for Disney's film The Little Mermaid, except that in the Danish story the mermaid decides not to stab the prince, who has betrayed her by marrying another woman, opting instead to throw her knife into the sea and dissolve into the air as a sort of benevolent spirit. Conlon was not the first to record this work, but it has become associated with him since this recording with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln. In his concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra this week -- the last performance is this evening -- Conlon is leading the first U.S. performances of a new critical edition of the work, which restores a section of 83 measures cut by the composer after the work's premiere, from the mermaid's visit to the Mer-witch.

According to Antony Beaumont's biography of Zemlinsky, it was Die Seejungfrau "that stole the show" at that 1905 concert: "His diaphanous orchestration teased the ear; the rich harmonies and passionate climaxes gave pleasure, and with his experience as a conductor of operetta, he knew how to articulate the finest nuance, to negotiate the subtlest of rubatos." During the Schoenberg piece, on the other hand, the audience grew restless, and many listeners left. Conlon's recording is well worth revisiting, or hearing for the first time, revealing a work that is in keeping with other fairy-tale music works of the same era, including the Pelléas adaptations by Fauré and Debussy. Listening to it now (see embedded video below), as with many of Zemlinsky's works, it is hard to believe that this composer could have passed into obscurity.

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