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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1892) [26.52]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major (1896) [41.49]
Slovak Radio SO (Bratislava)/Ludovit Rajter (1)
Slovak PO/Edgar Seipenbusch (2)
rec 12-15 Dec 1989, Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava (1); Nov 1985 Concert Hall, Slovak Philharmonic
Previously issued on Marco Polo 8.220391 (1); 8.223166 (2)
NAXOS 8.557008 [68.41]



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These are two symphonies by an expressionist-revolutionary writing in his ‘conformist’ twenties and keeping to the accustomed tracks of German romanticism. Listeners must not expect any disconcerting surprises.

In the case of the First Symphony the 21-year old had just completed his studies with Robert Fuchs. He speaks the lingua franca of Schumann and Brahms and does so with an unhesitant and pellucidly orchestrated discursiveness across three movements. The style moves without effort from romantic torment (Brahms' First Symphony) to relaxed contemplation to mellowly charming dance to ambivalent tension. In this Zemlinsky shows none of the vitriolic wit or gargantuan orchestration of Richard Strauss nor the originality of Mahler. The finale is extremely lyrical - no braying horns or heroic climaxes. The orchestra is recorded with a pleasing emphasis on the brass.

Four years later and the romantic torture has become a degree more intense. This is a full-blown four movement symphony with a big first movement of almost 15 minutes duration. A rolling, confident, horn-accentuated theme of some grit dominates with a character that now abandons Schumann and instead embraces a Brucknerian chasseur quality with a Tchaikovsky-like glare. The ‘forest murmurs’ adagio is troubled with malicious and benevolent sprites throwing in the occasional frisson (as at 3.24) or smiling soliloquy. The finale shows that even as late as 1985 the Slovak orchestra still had East European horns with that relishably juicy vibrato. Zemlinsky seems sometimes to be about to predict Rachmaninov's tear-soused way with romantic nobilmente and string themes.

These are decent-to-good performances with a technical team who have gone to some trouble to bring out the flavours of two symphonies written in the Viennese romantic tradition. I have not heard the recently deleted identically coupled James Conlon disc on EMI (Gürzenich Orchestra; Kölner Philharmoniker; CDC 556473 2) but the similarly deleted Nimbus NI 5682 with Antony Beaumont (himself a Zemlinsky scholar of international standing) conducting the Czech Phil grips and holds the tension; more so than Seipenbusch. The Nimbus was one of the last gasp releases of that label before it was laid low. It is coupled with the Prelude to Es War Einmal (1899) and the Sinfonietta (1934).

An economic way of exploring the early Zemlinsky. Both symphonies are pleasing but the Second is more resilient when heard repeatedly. Fascinating music and currently the only way of hearing these two works - and at budget price too!


Rob Barnett



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