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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Der König Kandaules (1935) [131:21]
Libretto by the composer after the tragedy by André Gide
Reconstruction and completed instrumentation by Antony BEAUMONT
Robert Brubaker (ten) – König Kandaules; Wolfgang Schöne (bar) – Gyges; Mel Ulrich (bar) – Phedros; John Nuzzo(ten) – Syphax; Jochen Schmeckenbecher (bass)– Nicomedes; Randall Jakobsch (bass) – Pharnaces; Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)– Philebos; Jürgen Sacher (ten) – Simias; John Dickie (ten) – Sebas; Almas Svilpa (bass/bar)– Archelaos; Peter Loehle (bass) – Der Kock; Nina Stemme (sop)– Nyssia.
Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg (Bühnenmusik)/Kent Nagano
rec. Live at Salzburg Festival, Kleines Festspielhaus Salzburg, 28 July 2002. DDD
ANDANTE AN 3070 [70:09 + 61:12]

Schoenberg once said of his forgotten brother-in-law, "Zemlinsky can wait". The wait was long, but the last two decades have witnessed a quantum leap in Zemlinsky’s reputation, with stage productions and recordings emerging apace. Each of his operas has its distinct orchestral and harmonic coloration — what Verdi would have called its tinta. The composer’s galley work as pit conductor reveals itself in clear characterisation and faultless pacing, as well as a natural affinity for the human voice. At least two, A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf — both taken from Oscar Wilde — are masterpieces. All of them stage well. They also make absorbing CD listening for the theatre of the mind.

Zemlinsky’s eighth and last opera Der König Kandaules took sixty years to reach the stage. Started in 1936 soon after he finished his oriental fable Der Kreidekreis ("The Chalk Circle", from the Klabund play which Brecht also utilised) the new opera was swiftly completed in short score. However orchestration was abandoned three-quarters of the way through the first of its three acts following Zemlinsky’s escape from Nazi Austria in 1938. Conductor Arthur Bodanzky encouraged the ailing composer to hope for a New York Metropolitan premiere, but his initial enthusiasm cooled once he hit upon "impossible" elements in the libretto.

Impossible? Certainly for 1940s New York. This was not the first Zemlinsky work to feature obsessive or perverse sexuality — both the Wilde operas as well as his celebrated Lyric Symphony do that — but here the sex is squarely on stage. Based not on Friedrich Hebbel’s 19th century dignified classic Gyges und sein Ring but on André Gide’s fin-de-siècle take on the Greek myth, Der König Kandaules is the fable of the rich King who has everything, including the most beautiful wife in the world. Tired of fawning courtiers, Kandaules develops an intense friendship with a brutal young fisherman, Gyges. His generosity (decadence?) prompts him to share everything he has with his new friend, including Queen Nyssia herself. With the aid of the King’s Ring of Invisibility, found inside a fish he himself caught, Gyges spends the night with Nyssia. Appalled, she orders him to kill Candaules. This he does, and the story ends with the peasant presented to the court as the new King. Hebbel’s play centred on the nobility of the "natural man" Gyges, but for Gide and Zemlinsky the King was the fascinating figure. Part poet, part voyeur, intensely self-aware but in the grip of an obsession focused as much on Gyges as the Queen, the character of Kandaules reflects many of the ambiguities and tensions of 20th century Western High Art.

The composer died in 1942 having laid his final testament aside. Fifty years later, Antony Beaumont (acclaimed for his completion of Busoni’s Doktor Faust) was chosen by Zemlinsky’s widow to put the score in order and finish the instrumentation, copious notes for which existed in the partially revised short score. In 1993 Gerd Albrecht recorded a teaser of extracts from Act 3 for Capriccio, showcasing Franz Grundheber as Gyges. The complete work followed three years later under the same conductor, in a live recording spliced together during the initial Hamburg run. Beaumont himself recently conducted the Act 3 Prelude — a graphical depiction of Gyges’ night of passion with Nyssia, lubriciously sliding trombones after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and all — for Volume 3 of his Zemlinsky survey for Chandos.

Zemlinsky’s opera is his artistic testament, a late oozing of the hectic sensuality of The Dwarf and A Florentine Tragedy, cross-fertilised by the austere modernity explored in Der Kreidekreis, a music theatre piece much closer to Kurt Weill than Strauss or Schoenberg. The sense of summation is heightened by prominent references to motifs from The Dwarf, the Lyric Symphony and others of his works. Mixing spoken dialogue with a rich chromatic melos which always stays this side of the tonal line, the score gathers power as the shadows close on Kandaules. The elegant, bland courtiers’ banter of Act 1 fines down to nocturnal sensuality for the central dialogues, culminating in the stripping bare of both the Queen and Candaules’ mental obsession. The last act spotlights Gyges, caught between friendship and the explosive sex of his night with Nyssia, and Zemlinsky’s music — magnificently realised by Beaumont — becomes progressively more robust as catastrophe approaches. The thunderous march which dominates the final pages as the Queen and her new consort take power after the ultimate consummation of the murder hints, maybe, at the brutality of the totalitarian regime which had destroyed what was left of Zemlinsky’s Viennese civilization, a regime led by vigorous men strong in feeling but weak in everything else. Not nice, but perhaps (the music tells us) inevitable.

Now the first night of the controversial 2002 Salzburg Festival production has joined Capriccio’s Hamburg premiere set on disc. This is in Andante’s chaste but elegant house style, scrupulously documented and illustrated with production shots. The controversy was all about Christine Mielitz’s stark staging rather than the musical side, which was generally admired. Little wonder, for the theatrical sweep and vigour of Kent Nagano’s reading grips from the start and never lets go. Despite some fluffs and lapses of co-ordination there’s added light and shade, an inexorable momentum compared against the Capriccio issue. Gerd Albrecht is never less than well regimented, but although his Hamburg strings capture Zemlinsky’s soaring climaxes with breathtaking power, it is Nagano’s orchestra which better evokes the headily perfumed, nocturnal air which pervades the score.

Der König Kandaules stands or falls by the quality of its principals, and the Salzburg men make up in theatrical force what they lack in subtlety. American tenor Robert Brubaker tackles the marathon title role with power and finesse, emphasising Kandaules’s questing, fevered intelligence at the expense of the lyric introspection James O’Neal quarried in the Hamburg run. Wolfgang Schöne’s long experience shows itself in verbal clarity, musical solidity … and crumbling security at forte and above. His Gyges sounds conventional besides the late Monte Pederson’s memorably individual Hamburg creation, an ironic Wozzeck with brain cells intact, far better sung.

With Nina Stemme the advantage swings back to Salzburg. Voluptuously seductive on the ear, her Nyssia reveals a powerful, idiosyncratic lyric soprano very much at the top of her game, thrilling above the stave, steely in the dignity of her resolve when the true begetter of her amorous satisfaction reveals himself. This is a magnificent portrayal, rendering the Queen’s plight more moving than Nina Warren’s Hamburg competence. The time-serving courtiers are lightly sketched, rather like Shakespeare’s comparable functionaries in Timon of Athens. Salzburg cast them from strength, with Georg Zeppenfeld’s firm, bronzed Philebos, wisest of the lot, a stand-out.

Capriccio’s Hamburg recording is clean and detailed, amazingly free of stage and audience thumps, bumps, and coughs, almost studio-bound. The Andante Salzburg is much more a warts and all radio job. The first two acts were run together, with applause intruding on the first notes of the onstage musical entertainment which opens Act 2. As a result Andante have to split the act between discs, midway through the pivotal scene between Kandaules and the newly-ennobled Gyges, which is a pity. Of more moment, however, is the restoration of numerous snatches of spoken dialogue and two very substantial spoken monologues over music, amplifying Gyges’ background and Kandaules’ discovery of the power of the Invisibility Ring. All of this adds about four minutes of music, of little significance in itself but serving to clarify plot and motivation. The restoration might also help account for the more human, less mythic ambience of the Salzburg production over its predecessor.

Which to choose? The Capriccio documentation, featuring a cogent essay by Beaumont himself, is just as good if less flashily presented; whilst their English-German libretto is clearer to read than the three-language Andante version, which (due to lack of space?) pares down the stage directions, sometimes to confusing effect. In an ideal world you’d couple Pedersen’s Hamburg Gyges with Stemme’s Salzburg Queen. The choice for Kandaules is far less clear cut. Maybe in the end Salzburg’s fuller musical text and Nagano’s imaginative direction tilt the balance just in favour of the new Andante version; but anyone who cares about Zemlinsky or twentieth century opera really should take one or the other into their library, for it is one of those rare works which offers fresh philosophical and musical insights on each hearing. Der König Kandaules may be, by definition, a less finished masterwork than either The Dwarf or Lyric Symphony; but it is still a gripping opera, provocative, outrageous and disturbing by turns.

Christopher Webber


1. Vorspiel and Gyges Monologue Act III. (Franz Grundheber (baritone), Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg/Gerd Albrecht) [coupled with Symphonische Gesänge Op.20, Drei Ballettstücke "Triumph der Zeit"]
CAPRICCIO 10 448 (1993)
2. Complete. Live, Hamburg State Opera, 1996 (James O’Neal, Monte Pederson, Nina Warren, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg/Gerd Albrecht)
CAPRICCIO 2-CD 60 071 2 (1996)
3. Vorspiel Act III. (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Antony Beaumont)
CHANDOS CHAN 10204 (2003)

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