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
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
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
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.