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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) Lyrische Symphonie, op. 18 (1923) [51:37]
Christine Schäfer (soprano);
Matthias Goerne (baritone);
Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach.
rec. 22-26 June 2005, Maison ONDIF, Paris, France. DDD
CAPRICCIO SACD 71 081 [51:47]

 

 

Alexander Zemlinsky was born and grew up in Vienna, spent some years at the German State Theatre in Prague and died in the United States, where he had been living since 1938. His early life in the musical hothouse that was Vienna at that time was spent in composition and conducting but in spite of prodigious gifts he never seems to have achieved acceptance. Poor man, he suffered from poorly developed "networking skills"; in fact he found that aspect of Viennese life distasteful. As a composer his style was already just sufficiently old-fashioned to discourage the public. He gave composition lessons and his most celebrated pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, was a lifelong admirer, saying of him "His time will come sooner than we think." Well, it hasn't really happened. In spite of his voluminous catalogue of compositions, including two numbered symphonies, a large amount of chamber music and operas almost into double figures, most readers of these columns will know his name only as the composer of the Lyric Symphony of 1923.

The work has been compared by many, including the composer himself, to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and at first sight the comparison seems a fair one. Although Zemlinsky called his work a symphony and Mahler did not, both works are effectively song-cycles for two alternating solo voices conceived on a symphonic scale. But Zemlinsky's music, for all its late-Romantic richness, only fleetingly sounds like Mahler. It is perhaps closer to early Schoenberg, to whose Gurrelieder the work has also been frequently compared, but even this can seem to stretch the point.

There are seven songs, alternating between the baritone, who has four, and the soprano. The poems are by Rabindranath Tagore, whose work earned him the Nobel Prize. Five of the poems Zemlinsky chose are meditations on love and inevitably loss. By the way, Frank Bridge set two of them to music in Tagore's own English translations. These five poems are framed, first, by a poem of uncertainty, searching and longing; and the final song eloquently sets a poem of farewell. There is little in the way of drama or narrative drive.

Many will find these poems self-indulgent today, but the richness of the imagery clearly inspired the composer: the Lyric Symphony is a great, if not perfect, work. The vocal lines have been conceived with remarkable skill, and though far from easy are intensely grateful to sing. The orchestra is huge but employed by a master, never overpowering the singer. The music surges with passion; the composer has, indeed, found the perfect musical embodiment of the words, the intense sweetness of the harmony never quite tipping over into excess. It could almost be Salome, such is the erotic charge of the second poem, who declares to her mother that though the young Prince apparently saw nothing she did indeed throw her ruby chain into his path as he passed. At other points the music recalls Wagner and, especially, Berg. There is little variety of atmosphere or subject matter in the texts, however, and here too the music follows suit. It is in this respect that the work differs most crucially from Mahler's masterpiece, as there is nothing like the range of mood and pace, nor of orchestral texture and colour, to be found in Das Lied von der Erde. But one looks for parallels between the two works only because the composer did. When heard the Lyric Symphony stands and convinces entirely on its own terms and anyone who does not already know the work is strongly encouraged to seek it out.

The performance is outstandingly successful. Christine Schäfer sings with total conviction. She is vocally infallible, tracing a legato line most singers would envy. The composer has given to the soprano music of greater variety than to the baritone, and within this limited, rather reflective role Matthias Goerne is also outstandingly successful. The recording, which I have only heard as a standard CD, is superb, rich and full, though with the voices rather forward for my taste. This seems to be more noticeably with the baritone than with the soprano, and in any case the performance is so gripping that one forgets about it after the first couple of minutes. All the same it would have been interesting to see if I felt the same hearing the recording in its SACD format. Christoph Eschenbach has been in the news lately following the announcement of his early departure from the Philadelphia Orchestra. The profoundly eloquent playing of the Orchestre de Paris – I have rarely heard them in recent years, but my memory of them was as lacklustre as their reputation – can only attest to the remarkable quality of the work Eschenbach has done with them during the half-decade he has been at the helm. Listen to the end of the work when, after the solo baritone's inconclusive final notes, the closing four minutes or so are left to the orchestra alone. You'll be able to savour the delicious, surprising use of brass glissando just before the final, admittedly Mahlerian, added sixth chord. And you won't hear finer orchestral playing than this.

William Hedley 

see also Reviews by Anne Ozorio and Paul Shoemaker

 


 



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