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PROM 67: Zemlinsky : Die Seejungfrau, Brahms :  A German Requiem

Marie Arnet (Soprano) Simon Keenlyside (Baritone) BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, James Conlon (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 4th September 2005 (AO)

The Brahms Requiem might have been the big draw for this Prom, but it was Zemlinsky's Die Seejungfrau that was the more telling experience in many ways.  James Conlon loves and records as much of Zemlinsky's work as possible : his only rivals are Riccardo Chailly and Anthony Beaumont.  With Beaumont speaking before the concert too, this was a rare opportunity to appreciate Zemlinsky from the finest sources. 

Zemlinsky was long under the shadow of his brother-in-law Schoenberg, and suffered greatly from the public disparagement of Alma Mahler.   Anthony Beaumont has studied Zemlinsky and his contemporaries in greater depth than most and is probably the main researcher in this field currently. Being a conductor himself, he understands the musical logic of Zemlinsky's work from within, so that approaching Zemlinsky without access to Beaumont's experience is like trying to swim without water - as apt a metaphor as any for this particular piece. True to form, Beaumont gave us something completely new during his talk: news of the discovery in an unmarked archive, of an unknown song torn into 26 pieces.   In this song Zemlinsky writes about a young man going to a tryst with a beautiful young blonde, but she has a crucifix over her bed while he has a pentateuch.  It may well be that the reason this manuscript was torn so badly was that it expressed Zemlinsky's innermost pain.  He loved Alma, who though flirting with him, would never return his affection.  And until middle age, Zemlinsky kept re-examining his relationship with Alma Mahler so that  Die Seejungfrau may be his roman á clef.

Knowing the background to any work gives the music extra poignancy.   The disturbing, mysterious first movement of Die Seejungfrau came from a sketch for a symphony about death which the composer wrote on hearing the news of Alma's sudden engagement to Gustav Mahler.  Its notes are reversed in the second movement, which portrays a ball at the palace of the Sea Witch so that   tragedy and celebration are inextricably linked.   Nonetheless,  even without any technical knowledge the listener can still get much from the piece, because it also works superbly at the basic level, as a series of colourful musical interludes.  The  mermaid looks out on the horizon and sees a prince: beautiful serene playing.  A storm arises, sinking the prince's ship – no missing this.  As the mermaid walks on shore with painful human feet, she treads in pain, and the music deliberately drags.  The mermaid is forced to have her tongue cut out and never sings again :  for a musician giving up creative expression is particularly cruel.  This is no charming, soothing fairy tale.  In this music, there is a real sense that Zemlinsky identified with the mutilated mermaid : like her, he could never be what he was not.

Even though Die Seejungfrau can be appreciated on a purely surface level because it's so “pictorial” - what good music for a ballet! - neither Conlon nor Beaumont see it as superficial.  Beaumont pointed out some of the techniques that Zemlinsky used when composing.  For example, like Berg and Schoenberg, he was interested in numerological theories current at the time, and incorporated patterns of fifths and fourths into his textures. He had also studied Goethe's theory of colour represented in sound eg that C major is white, and it's counterpart A minor is black.  While not essential to understanding this music, these insights do bring out an extraordinary degree of additional richness and while Conlon is a very good Zemlinsky interpreter, he is not perhaps, quite technicolor enough for this music. On the other hand, something too overwrought would overpower the basic delicacy of feeling.  Conlon's poise was exemplary in this respect and the orchestra responded well, far better than the Köln Gürzenich orchestra with whom he has recorded this piece.   Getting a transparent sound with an orchestra this size is not easy - there are fifteen desks in the last row alone and it was particularly pleasing that Conlon drew the finale , where the mermaid transforms into the ether, so particularly finely.

With Brahm's German Requiem, the stage was loaded with even more performers, so much so that the combined heat of the capacity  audience and stage turned the venue into an oven, on a hot, sultry evening.  This should have been the showpiece of the evening, the “big number” everyone for which everyone waited.   The orchestra was certainly on form, and Conlon handled the vast forces with deftness so tht the power of the orchestral writing was well conveyed – no half measures here.  If the playing was slightly ragged on occasion, this never detracted from the total impact although I did feel that  that funereal as the music is, it could sometimes have borne faster tempi.  What makes the Requiem so great however is its sense of humanity, expressed via the its German text rather than disembodied, impersonal latin.  The singing was well behaved however rather than fervent : less homogenity and more character was needed perhaps.

Not so the soloists, who excelled, particularly Keenlyside.  His voice was absolutely right – deep and full in the lower registers, and almost bass like, he conveyed profound emotion with considerable dignity.   His voice impressively soared over the auditorium, like a force of nature, without sacrificing colour for volume.  In “und ich davon muss”, he managed the change of tone beautifully, and wherever lightness of touch was needed, he modulated well.  Arnet was impressive too, also holding her own against the vast forces behind and before her. The piece favours the baritone though and Keenlyside made it memorable. 


Anne Ozorio

Reference: Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky Faber & Faber, 2000, £30. 524pp


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