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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Lyrische Symphonie Op. 18 (1922) [47.06]
Symphonische Gesänge Op. 20 (1929) [17.48]
Psalms 13, 23, 83 (1935, 1910, 1900) [13.42; 10.54; 12.20]
Eine florentinische Tragödie (1916) [53.42]
Alessandra Marc (sop) (Op. 18)
Håkan Hagegård (bar) (Op. 18)
Willard White (bass-bar) (Op. 20)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir (Psalm 83)
Kammerchor Ernst Senff (Psalms 13, 23)
Heinz Kruse - Guido Bardi (Op. 16)
Albert Dohmen - Simone (Op. 16)
Iris Vermillion - Bianca (Op. 16)
Wiener Philharmoniker (Psalm 83)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (RSO) (Psalm 13, 23)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Symphonie; Gesänge; Florentinische)
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Mar 1986 (Psalm 13); Sept 1987 (Psalm 23); Gritezaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Mar; Oct 1993 (Symphonie; Gesänge); Apr 1996 (Florentinische); Konzerthaus, Vienna, June 1997 (Psalm 83). DDD
DOUBLE DECCA 473 734-2 [2CDs: 155.59]

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This year (2003) has witnessed a modest flurry of Zemlinsky releases.

This Chailly Decca double at midprice is up against numerous competition in the Lyrische Symphonie. Ian Lace has very recently reviewed the versions with Dorothy Dorow and Siegmund Nimsgern (BBCSO/Gabriele Ferro Warner Fonit 0927 43405-2, 1978) and Vlatka Orsanic and James Johnson (SWFSO/Michael Gielen Arte Nova 74321 27768 2, 1994 and pronounced judgement in favour of the Gielen). There is also the single Chandos disc in which the Czech Phil is conducted by Zemlinsky/Busoni specialist, Antony Beaumont. These are now set against Chailly's Lyric. Beaumont's coupling is the incidental music to Cymbeline recorded complete for the first time. The others either have no coupling or are very modestly coupled. The Chailly/Decca box has good notes but no texts (reportedly, the same goes for Ferro and Gielen) where the Beaumont/Chandos CD is superbly documented with full texts and translations.

In the case of the Lyrische Symphonie the most demanding listeners will note some congestion at the climaxes which in the Chandos are accommodated with easy transparency. Take as an example the sound of the horns in tr. 2 4.58 which are clear but recessed and slightly mistily focussed for Chailly yet stand clear in sharp focus in the Chandos. Although Zemlinsky promoted the Symphonie as a work after the example of Mahler's Das Lied there are few if any parallels between the two. While the Tagore poems chart the trajectory of an affair the Bethge translations are more varied and solitary in subject matter. Marc sounds beautiful if rather thickly laid on by comparison with the Turid Karlsen for Chandos. On balance I favour Karlsen - more shantung silk than theatrical armour plate - for her less adipose sound although Marc makes a most lovely sound - closer to Ferrier than to Davrath or Teyte.

The Chandos has a small edge in that the Beaumont represents the first recording of Beaumont's own corrected urtext of the score based on his own Zemlinsky scholarship among parts, mss and correction sheets.

The Symphonische Gesänge are painted in starker colours - not as shimmering as those in the Lyrische Symphonie. The seven poems (the same number as for the Op. 18 work) are taken from German translations of the black poetry of 1920s USA. Just as with the Symphonie the songs are played without a break (although they are of course separately tracked). The year was 1929 the place Vienna. One can easily imagine the curdled fate that greeted a song cycle of negro poems by a Jewish composer. In the seven or so years since the Lyrische Symphonie Zemlinsky’s style had gravitated towards the gaunt and acerbic. Certainly there is none of the ecstatic jugendstil gauze-play of the Symphonie. If he sounds like anyone then here he is somewhat like Kurt Weill in corrosive and acrid mode. Willard White is sturdy as an anchor, his voice rich in allusory colour catching the resentment and resignation of these protest poems. Erkenntnis is a good track to sample for lullaby power and Afrikanischer Tanz the strangest.

There are three Psalms for choir and orchestra across this set. The Psalm 83 work is contemporary with the opera Es war einmal (1900). It is catastrophic, protesting and carries souvenirs of the choral works of Schumann and Brahms. At its climax (08.16) it may remind you of Delius's Mass of Life. It is swung and flamed along with perfervid fire by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. Psalm 13 is a work in which balm and fury meet. The eminence accorded to the female voices echoes the gentle colour scheme of Holst's Hymn of Jesus and Ode to Death. There are demonstrative moments too as in the blurt and blare of the raging brass at 08.54 rising to the entry of the organ. The piece ends in a triumphant barbarian blaze; a touch conventional but extremely effective. More carefree and playful work appears in Psalm 23, for all the world like Herrrmann's music for The Magnificent Ambersons. The women's voices are once again dominant for much of the time. The gestural brass writing recalls that in the earlier songs of the Lyrische Symphonie. Surprisingly the choral singing can sometimes suggest Elgar. At other times, as noted previously, the music sounds the same note as Delius's wild exuberance in A Mass of Life. The work ends in glimmering enchantment of a Klimt-like astral firmament.

This version of Eine florentinische Tragödie originally appeared as part of Decca's lamentedly deleted ‘Entartete Musik’ series (recently reissued complete at bargain price in Germany but not frustratingly not elsewhere; now apparently sold out). It sounds very well indeed: silky of string sound in the Vorspiel and brazenly brawny elsewhere. This opera continues a strain which also takes in Max von Schillings Mona Lisa (1915), a work I must hear, Korngold's Violanta (1916) and Schrecker's Die Gezeichneten (1918) - all mentioned in the booklet notes but also extends to Montemezzi's Amor di Tre Rei and Puccini's Turandot. The theatre of sadistic cruelty had a potent draw and can also be traced to Delius's 1920s music for Flecker's play Hassan where the lovers are tortured to death and the march of the torturers is called The Procession of Protracted Death. Ecstasy, sadism, sex and death make for a heady brew. Zemlinsky is the man for bringing this to the boil. In the one-acter's storyline Simone is suddenly transformed in his wife’s eyes, into a devastatingly attractive man but only after he has strangled Guido her aristocratic lover, in front of her very eyes. Their marriage is revived and the opera ends with her words 'Why did you not tell me you were so strong' and with his words 'Why did you not tell me you were beautiful.' Simone is sung by Heinz Kruse (also in Decca’s version of Zemlinsky’s opera Die Gezeichneten in the ‘Entartete Musik’ series) who at all times sings and sounds more burly and substantial than the doomed effete lover Guido (Albert Dohmen). As expected this is all superheated stuff but laced with intimations of the waltz and of Richard Strauss (Elektra at one moment and Rosenkavalier at the next). The wonderful sense of fate extending at epic reach in front of the character can be heard in the start of the duet of Guido and Bianca (tr. 7). This is a concise little shocker, heroic, gritty, sensuous. It must not be missed by those who respond to verismo. Gloriously sung and performed here. On a par with the Willard White Symphonische Gesänge as an example of classic Zemlinsky.

This is a very generous coupling, neatly packaged in a single width double case. The notes are good (though no texts at all despite all of the works having a vocal element). A no compromise Zemlinsky primer.

Rob Barnett



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