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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1872-1942) Lyric Symphony in Seven Songs (1923)
Dorothy Dorow (soprano) and Siegmund Nimsgern (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gabriele Ferro
Recorded in London April 13th and 14th 1978
WARNER FONIT 0927 43405-2 [48:01]

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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1872-1942)
Lyric Symphony in Seven Songs (1923)
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Three pieces from "Lyric Suite" (1925/6)
Five Orchestral Songs after Texts from Postcards (1912)
Vlatka Orsanic (soprano) and James Johnson (baritone)
SWF-Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
Recorded in February and March 1994, SWF Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden
ARTE NOVA 74321 27768 2 [66:07]

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Over the last decade or so there has been increasing interest in the music of Alexander Zemlinsky, with a number of recordings appearing - particularly of his Lyric Symphony. In fact this Warner Fonit reissue(?) of a 1978 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance will soon face competition from a shortly to be released Chandos recording.

Zemlinsky was more often known for his friendship with Schoenberg (he married Zemlinsky’s sister) and as one of the teachers of Korngold. His talent was admired and encouraged by Mahler. In fact Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony strongly resembles Mahler’s Song of the Earth. The Lyric Symphony uses mystical poetry (by Rabindranath Tagore) of the East speaking of dreamlike recollections of love.

The Warner Fonit recording of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony faces stiff opposition from the outstanding bargain Arte Nova album that also includes the Berg pieces for good measure. The opening song for baritone who is "athirst for faraway things" and romantic adventure, employs huge orchestral resources that Michael Gielen unleashes with ferocity and passion in a reading that is more intense and faster than Ferro’s although the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s response is not low on voltage either. The Arte Nova sound has the edge too. Of the two baritones, both with attractively arresting timbres, Nimsgern is more subtly expressive and traces a more persuasive and sinuous vocal line.

The second song has a besotted young girl trying to attract the attention of a prince as he passes beneath her window. Gielen captures all her dreaming and yearning and then despair as the prince passes on oblivious of her attentions, in a glittering, voluptuous then crushing evocation as the prince’s chariot drives over the jewel she had thrown in his path. In the early section, Ferro’s recording is dreamier and more languid as the girl ecstatically prepares herself and awaits the approach of the prince. Dorothy Dorrow has a lyric soprano’s sweetness suitable for the innocence of a young girl impossibly in love while a deeper timbred Vlatka Orsanic is more volcanic in Gielen’s more urgent pacing and more dramatic approach. But again Ferro excites strongly too as the prince’s chariot unheedingly rushes by.

Zemlinsky’s third song has the baritone dreaming of his beloved and reflecting, "You are the evening cloud floating in the sky of my dreams." The music very Mahler-like here, yet not unlike Richard Strauss and Korngold too, is a perfumed, floating sensuality as Ferro dallies over 7’:14" while Gielen presses forward in 5’:27" allowing Johnson to be more persuasively passionate, and opulent. The fourth song, a nocturne beginning with a lovely violin solo sounds a note of sadness as the soprano sighs, "Speak to me, my love!...I will clasp your head to my bosom…the night will pale…The day will dawn. We shall look at each other’s eyes and go on our different paths…" Zemlinsky weaves orchestra magic here evoking a still, sylvan scene yet with slightly disturbing spectral ripples. The soprano line is beautifully merged into the instrumental fabric. One is reminded not only of Mahler but also the nocturnes of Respighi and Korngold. Ferro’s slower reading (by some 90 seconds) accentuates the sweet despair more deeply while Gielen opts for a more romantic approach; both sopranos are most persuasive.

In strong contrast, the fifth song has the baritone anxious to break the silken bonds of love, "Free me from the bonds of your sweetness … free me from your spells and give me back the manhood to offer you my freed heart." The music is brutal as the baritone is impatient to be free. Both conductors compel the music forward in just over 1:50 with both baritones terse and strident. Just as harsh is the soprano’s vindictive response that is the sixth song. Both sopranos are viperish as they scornfully dismiss their fickle lovers and their mounting fury erupts spectacularly, especially by Gielen. The final song with the baritone, more conciliatory, returns to the mood of the first with "Peace, my heart … let love melt into memory and pain into songs…O Beautiful End … I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way." Nimsgern and Ferro are most affecting while Gielen in the closing pages more strongly implying that the lover is also anticipating fresh conquests.

Here I must complain about the very limited documentation for both releases. The Warner Fonit album has detailed erudite notes on Zemlinsky and his Lyric Symphony but includes texts of the songs only in German and Italian. The Arte Nova release has no song texts at all and the notes are poor and cursory. A third, mid-priced recording of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony again with Michael Gielen conducting, this time, the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Elisabeth Söderström and Thomas Allen (with the same composer’s Six Maeterlinck Songs) released on BBC Radio Classics in 1996 also leaves out the texts. It seems that only full priced recordings of the Lyric Symphony have texts. These are serious omissions and false economies by recording companies – they only serve to frustrate and anger customers who really need the texts to appreciate Zemlinsky’s achievement.

Gielen’s readings of the Alban Berg pieces included on the Arte Nova recording are equally persuasive. The Lyric Suite pieces, after the Zemlinsky composition, are colourful and lyrical; experimenting with twelve-tone technique and frequently, in Gielen’s Andante amoroso, and in the tremolandi and pizzicatos of the Allegro misterioso, I was reminded of Bernard Herrmann’s musical language for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo. The oddly named Five Orchestral Songs after postcard texts is more experimental and abrasive. Described as a "subtly constructed work which invokes a doomsday atmosphere by means of extreme drama" it pitches a lyrical soprano line against a grotesque or violent or coldly remote musical landscape.

Although the newer Warner Fonit recording of the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony has much to recommend it including two impressively expressive soloists, I marginally prefer the dramatic power of Gielen’s Arte Nova recording in splendidly vivid sound.


Ian Lace

 



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