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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Die Seejungfrau - fantasy for orchestra (1902-03)
Symphony in D minor (1892-93)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Antony Beaumont
Recorded in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in March 2003

CHANDOS CHAN 10138 [70:35]

Since its re-discovery in 1984, Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) has been quite popular in both the concert hall and the recording studio (five recordings are listed in the R.E.D. Classical Catalogue) and this is the second recording of it released by Chandos. The first was, in 1997, by the Danish National Radio Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard on CHAN 9601.

The notes for these two Chandos recordings (for the new recording by its conductor, Antony Beaumont who has published a study of Zemlinsky and Paul Banks for the Danish recording) provide conflicting facts. Banks states that ‘Zemlinsky was so taken aback by the coolness of the audience’s response that he withdrew his piece and it remained unheard (indeed it was considered ‘lost’) until 1984. Whereas Beaumont comments, "On 25 January, 1905, Die Seejungfrau shared the stage with Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky’s score was applauded vociferously; Schoenberg’s played to an accompaniment of jeers and catcalls. After two further performances of Die Seejungfrau (in Prague and Berlin) the score disappeared from the repertoire, not to be heard again until 1984. Pelleas und Melisande lived on to be hailed as a masterpiece."

Whatever, little wonder that Zemlinsky’s Fantasy for Orchestra is so popular now, for it is a very attractive and accessible composition, extraordinarily evocative, wonderfully tuneful - and it is quite clear who influenced Korngold’s use of luscious orchestration.

Zemlinsky started work on the composition a few days before the wedding of the woman he loved, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was devastated and it took years for him to recover from the blow. Clearly, The Mermaid’s story of rejected love had profound autobiographical significance for Zemlinsky at this time and he confided in Schoenberg that the work was actually a preliminary study for a projected ‘Symphony of Death’ that was never written. The composition is based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson. On the seabed the mermaid becomes obsessed with the notion of becoming immortal by winning the love of a mortal. After she has saved the life of a prince from a shipwreck, she takes a magic potion to enable her to take human form in order to win the prince. But he marries a princess. Devastated, in her agony, she plans to kill the prince in his sleep but at the last moment she throws away her knife and ends her tormented life. In her renunciation she achieves the immortality she longs for as a spirit of the air.

In realising the story, Zemlinsky uses a large orchestra. It has all the heroic and romantic hallmarks of a great Late Romantic symphony – in fact Beaumont argues that it ‘qualifies today for nomination as a symphony.’ The obvious influence is Richard Strauss but there is also something of Tchaikovsky – in fact one of the motifs is very like one Tchaikovsky used in the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. There is atmospheric material for the opening scene on the seabed, powerfully evocative music for the storm that shipwrecks the prince, erotic, voluptuous, perfumed music for the mermaid’s dreaming of love and immortality and of yearning and sweet devotion for her unresponsive prince.

Both Chandos recordings are impressive. Antony Beaumont goes for the dramatic high ground pressing the music forward more strongly clipping some three minutes off the Danish recording. I prefer, however, the more relaxed pace, more detailed, more poetic reading of Dausgaard. Funnily enough, to my ears Dausgaard sounds faster, it is probably all a matter of pulse.

Zemlinsky’s early Symphony in D minor is a lesser work. Very Brahmsian, its opening movement is heroic and virile. I think that Beaumont is being unkind in suggesting, here, that Zemlinsky ‘takes refuge in histrionics’. I would prefer to say that it has its excitements. The scherzo second movement is a perky and merry creation with Schubertian lyricism in its associated Trio. The introspective, rather Brucknerian third movement is the most interesting while the work is rounded off by a sunny, melodic Finale.

I should add that the Dausgaard recording has the more interesting fill-ups: Zemlinsky’s mature, more hard-edged, darkly lyrical Sinfonietta (1938); and his Overture to his first opera, the Wagner-influenced Sarema (1897).

This is the second Chandos recording of the attractive, richly romantic Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). Although it is powerful enough, I prefer their original 1997 recording, the more relaxed, more poetic, yet exciting view of Dausgaard

Ian Lace



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