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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)

Lyrische Symphonie Op. 18 (1922)
Matthias Goerne (baritone); Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Orchestre National de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. Paris, June 2005. SACD
CAPRICCIO 71 081 [51:47]

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Great art is about increasing understanding. Good artists are driven to seek something original and perceptive in what they do: it is that creative integrity that marks good performance, and a constant search for improvement and insight.

This is a ground-breaking recording, not only because of its high quality, but because it is informed by recent discoveries about Zemlinsky and his style. In the last twenty years, Zemlinsky studies have advanced so much that there is no excuse for superficial clichés. Even the score of this symphony has been edited to better reflect the composerís intentions. Beaumontís pioneering recording of 2003 might have been a breakthrough because he is by far the most perceptive of Zemlinsky scholars. However, it suffered from performances that were rather under par. No such worries with this new recording, which is stunningly good on all counts.

In the 1920s, Tagoreís mysticism represented a radical alternative to the mores of western society. It was exotic, but it also fitted in with progressive western ideas on art and society. Zemlinsky adapted Tagoreís idea of a "Wheel of Life" and gave his symphony a circular structure within which motifs recur like wheels within wheels. Itís an original concept. Moreover, he combines the richness of his imagery with avant-garde musical ideas. Heís no obtuse pseudo-Wagnerian but a modernist, between, so to speak, Mahler and the Second Viennese School.

Unlike Mahlerís Das Lied von der Erde, where concepts are expressed through imagery with people, the Lyric Symphony focuses on two central figures. Yet because this is not opera, characterization only exists to reinforce interpretation Ė the parts arenít "roles" per se, except in a symbolic, conceptual way. The Lyric Symphony is certainly not "opera" but a symphony in which song is part of its architecture.

This performance shows with penetrating clarity just how imaginative Zemlinskyís writing was. No muddy meandering here. Eschenbach and his soloists have thought the whole symphony through. This is an interpretation with vivid insights, gained not only from the score itself, but informed by an understanding of the music of his time. Quite frankly, it raises the bar, and becomes the benchmark for performances in the future.

Thus those rich drum-rolls that lead into the symphony "are" an announcement of things to come, as drum-rolls should be Ė quite literally a "curtain raiser" for a cosmic adventure. Immediately, refreshingly clear brass introduces the three note figure that recurs in myriad guises through the symphony. Then, softly, out of the orchestra, the baritoneís voice enters, quietly but with intense depth and feeling. "Ich bin friedlos" - a variant of the three note figure. Goerne is still under forty, still not at the peak of his powers, and yet itís hard to imagine any singer delivering such authority and nuance to these words. The way he curls his voice around the vowels is utterly delicious Ė " Meine Seele schweift in Sensucht, den Saum der dunkeln Weite zu berühten". You donít need a word of German to enjoy the richness of his tone. If you do have German, itís even more luscious. Since Zemlinsky was working with the German translation, ignore the English translation given which dates from 1925 (it suggests "listless" for "ruhlos", for example). This music is anything but listless. It reflects the overwhelming "thirst" in the text for distant, unknown horizons and the "Great Beyond". Goerne sings "Ich bin voll Verlangen" with eagerness, then shapes the next words "und wachsam" with warm, rounded, sensuality. Itís delicious to hear two different, but valid feelings, in the space of a few seconds. Make no mistake, this music is about seeking new things, striving for knowledge.

A lovely skittish violin solo introduces the second movement. Schäferís voice with its pure, light quality expresses youth better than most of the sopranos whoíve sung this part. Dorow was lovely, but matronly and mature. She may sound almost breathless with excitement, but sheís far too assured a singer to lose the musical line, "Mutter, der jungeÖ.", where the vowels underline each other. For the first time we hear an almost Bergian leap in the voice, when Zemlinsky decorates the line "Zieg mir, wie soll mein HaarÖ". Both the image and the sudden leap will recur later in the symphony. For the moment, Schäfer colours it with warmth, as though blossoming into womanhood before our ears. The music illustrating the exotic procession is one of the rare overtly "oriental" touches Zemlinsky indulges in. In the tumultuous postlude, the full orchestra surges forth, complete with drums and cymbals, yet the echoes of the three note theme gradually assert themselves as the soprano song blends seamlessly into the next baritone entry. Thereís no narrative, we never discover how the girl and prince meet, if they do at all. The erotic tension and waves of sound owe much to Wagner, but also to Berg and Schoenberg. Goerneís singing in the third movement is some of the most beautiful in the whole symphony. It is quite breathtakingly sensitive and nuanced. "Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen ", he repeats, each time with intense, but nuanced feeling. These notes, too, are repeated throughout the symphony .

The fourth movement expands the symphony into new territory. Again, an exquisite violin solo sets the mood, which deepens with cellos and violas. Schäferís voice cleanly rings out "Sprichtís du mir!". The vocal line is tender, yet also discordant, with frequent sudden leaps in pitch which are decidedly modern. So, too, is the indeterminate tonality, creating at once lushness and unreality. The music seems to hover as if it were the stuff of dreams and the unconscious. Itís atmospheric, pure chromatic impressionism. There are murmurs of the line "Sprichtís du mir", and again the painfully beautiful violin, and sinister, dark woodwind. This song may be sensual, but itís no excuse for sentimental indulgence, and the orchestra plays with well judged reticence. . It is, after all, a movement about stillness and silence. "Nur die Bäume werden im Dunkel flüstern" (only the trees will whisper in the dark),

The fanfare with which the fifth movement starts seems to drive away the strange mood that had prevailed before. It may seem relatively conventional music but this is emotionally amorphous territory. When the sixth movement starts, thereís no mistaking the modernism here. Horn and bass clarinet inject a darker, discordant mood. Schäferís extensive experience in new music means she copes effortlessly with those sudden tonal swoops while still keeping sensual beauty. She makes "mein gierigen Hände" sound genuinely eager. This is Ewartung, minus the harsh dementia, and all the more complex for that. Instead the mood of reverie is rocked away by a gently rhythmic melody, as the singer becomes aware "Träume lassen sich nicht eingefangen" (dreams canít be made captive). Only then does the voice rise in horror, punctuated by a single, fatal drum-stroke. Has it all been an illusion? Itís not clear, nor on what level, but thatís what makes it so intriguing. Zemlinsky wisely leaves the ideas floating. Instead, he lets the music segue, mysteriously, into the final movement.

This final song is full of interpretative possibilities. The protagonist accepts that the affair is at an end, yet is dignified and positive. "Lass es nicht eine Tod sein, sondern Vollendung" (let it not be a death, but completeness). Even love is sublimated in creative rebirth. "Lass Liebe in Erinnírung schmelzen und Schmerz in lieder". The calmness and dignity with which Goerne sings confirms that, in this performance, the man has reached that "Great Beyond" he sang of in the first movement and has found the horizons he was seeking. This time, the violin returns, playing a sweet, plaintive melody, while the orchestra echoes the word "Vollendung, Vollendung". Then thereís another transition. A warmer note, like a breeze, enters on the strings, and the wavering half-tones resolve from minor, gradually, to major. With infinite depth, Goerne sings that last phrase "ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir auf deinen Weg zu leuchten". "Zu leuchten" is sung with such goodwill, that you feel that whoever embarks on the next phase will be going armed with the knowledge and faith already gained. The postlude is led by a distant woodwind, a reference to the flute that called in the very beginning of this journey. There are echoes, too, of the "Du bist mein Eigen" theme, emphasizing the sense of fulfillment. Gradually the wavering half-tones resolve, and the music moves from minor to major, concluding in another shimmering plane of colour. .

Anthony Beaumont, in his analysis of the symphony, said "often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work. In performance, the score requires Mozartian grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty and power only in performed with discipline and cool headed restraint". Eschenbach recognizes its profoundly Bergian qualities, keeping the textures clear, letting them shimmer through unsullied. He doesnít mistake sensuality for an excuse in indulgence: on the contrary, itís the very purity of the orchestral playing that sheds light on the dynamics of the scoring. The soloistsí voices complement each other perfectly, and are in turn complemented by the elegance of the orchestral sound.

The main disappointments come in the booklet notes where there are statements not borne out by recent knowledge, such as Zemlinsky was a "loser in love" which was true, but the Lyric Symphony was a tribute to his beloved (and youthful) friend Luise who was to make him blissfully happy when they married.

This year has brought a remarkable harvest of good recordings, but without hesitation, I would suggest that this one will be my Recording of the Year. The performances and insights are so profound that this recording will stand the test of time.. It has taught me so much, even though I Ďm pretty familiar with Zemlinsky. This will be the touchstone for decades to come, like a "lamp held on high, in order to light (our) way".

Anne Ozorio

see also review by Paul Shoemaker


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