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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Psalm 23 (1910) [10:54]*
Symphony in B flat major, Op. 57 (1897) [44:47]
Kammerchor Ernst Senff*
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, September 1987. DDD
DECCA 421 644-2 [55:54]

Alexander Zemlinksy stares mournfully from the Arnold Schönberg portrait that adorns the cover of this Arkiv CD.  It is the face of a 39 year old man, unhappily married and busily conducting extra-marital affairs while running the Vienna Volksoper and carving out a career as a composer.  In the year this portrait was painted, Zemlinksy wrote the music for the second of his three psalm settings.  The first, a setting of Psalm 83, was written a decade earlier.  In 1935 he added a setting of Psalm 13. 

Zemlinsky’s setting of Psalm 23 is lush and beautiful.  There is a the modal flavour to the opening chords and the bucolic cor anglais that almost point to Vaughan Williams.  Once the chorus joins, though, the reference points shift to a sound world somewhere between Brahms’ German Requiem and the choral finale to Mahler’s second symphony.  This is very much Zemlinsky’s own music, though.  Having written two or three operas by the time he penned this piece, his facility in setting text was well established and he captures the mood of the psalm beautifully.  Yes, there is reassurance and repose, but there are still shadows in the valley.  This contrast gives context to the striving and ecstatic climaxes.  The writing for orchestra is just as deft as the writing for chorus, and the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin revel in its colours, with a rich bloom to the strings especially.  Kammerchor Ernst Senff acquit themselves admirably. 

The symphony noticeably comes from an earlier time in Zemlinsky’s creative life.  It is the work of a 26 year old still trying to assimilate the styles of the composers he revered to forge an idiom of his own.  Chailly sounds very much at home here in this late romantic score.  He draws out the excitement and the beauty of the music so persuasively that the derivative touches cease to matter in the face of the fresh vitality of the score.

The opening bar of the symphony references the opening of Bruckner’s fourth.  Music that could come from Wagner’s Lohengrin follows as the introduction to the first movement builds.  Then the introduction is suddenly put down as, with a flourish, the first movement’s exposition gets going with a sunny Dvořákian melody that bears more than a passing, if inverted, resemblance to the theme that opens Dvořák’s sixth.  The ascending violins towards the end of the movement sound like the close of Bruckner’s third, but this idea disappears as soon as it can be identified to make way for the recapitulation, which like the development and the thematic material itself is Dvořák through and through. 

Dvořák is also very present in the second movement, the scherzo.  There is some lovely writing for winds here, as Zemlinsky paints expertly with orchestral colours.  The adagio that follows has a noble beauty and harks back to Bruckner and Brahms.  There is also a touch of Elgar to the flourishes from the violins, though this must be a coincidental anachronism. 

The finale opens with a proud, martial statement before pulling back into introspection.  There is a foreshadowing of Rachmaninov in the melancholy of this movement, but it tends to meander.  The clarinet and horn dialogue, joined by solo violin, is quite lovely though and Zemlinsky manages to pull the threads together for a taut Wagnerian conclusion that, at the death, refers back to the theme of the first movement.

Throughout, the playing of the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is superb.  There are absolutely no weak spots in ensemble and the commitment of the musicians is total.  Chailly made some excellent recordings with this orchestra before moving to the Concertgebouw, including a long-breathed but compelling Bruckner 7 and his classic Mahler 10.  This recording belongs in that elite company. 

The sound is also excellent.  The strings are consistently warm and creamy, and the perspective natural – just listen to the way the tuba sits below the higher voices in the second movement and the finale, retaining its prominence without obscuring other detail.  The acoustic of the Jesus Christus Kirche imparts just the right amount of resonance.  Hearing this disc makes you wonder why any Berlin orchestra would want to record in the Philharmonie! 

Other recordings of the symphony are available, but can be hard to find.  James Conlon’s recording, which I have not heard, has recently been given a new lease of life on EMI’s Encore label (EMI Encore 0946 341445 2 0) in harness with the composer’s earlier Symphony in D minor.  Naxos offers the same coupling at the same price point.  The resurgent Nimbus has a scholarly account on its books. 

Chailly’s version, though, does everything Zemlinsky could ever have asked for and comes with a superb coupling from the composer’s maturity.  Arkiv has unearthed back catalogue gold in restoring it to circulation.

Tim Perry


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