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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


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A Garland for John McCabe


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La Mer Ticciati








Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
CD 1
Die Seejungfrau
(1903) [44:14]; Sinfonietta (1934) [22:31]
CD 2
Lyrisches Symphony (1923) [45:05]; Operatic Preludes: Sarema [5:43]; Es war Einmal [5:29; 5:04]; Kleider Madchen Leute [4:15, 4:08]; Der Kreidekreis [2:16]; Der König Kandaules [5:42]
CD 3
Cymbeline Suite (1913) [17:01]; Frühlingsbegräbnis (1896) [24:16]; Ein Tanzpoem (1901) [35:10]
Deborah Voigt, Soile Isokoski (sopranos), Donnie Ray Albert, David Kuebler (tenors), Bo Skovhus (baritone)
Chör der Stadtischen Musikverein Düsseldorf,
Gürzenich-Orchester, Köln/James Conlon
rec. Köln, March 1995 (CD1); Köln, August 2001 (CD2); Köln, October 1997 (CD3)
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5094562 [3 CDs: 67:07 + 78:18 + 77:04] 


Experience Classicsonline

Very often the first recording you hear of a work new to you leaves such an impression that it “imprints” on you, making it hard to appreciate different new interpretations. James Conlon was an early champion of Zemlinsky’s music, and for many years, his work dominated the market. It was interesting to revisit Conlon after the many new recordings that have come along since the huge revival of interest in this composer has sharpened the whole way we listen.

Conlon wasn’t the only Zemlinsky champion. Riccardo Chailly’s series for Decca may not have gained as much market saturation, but although not as widely encompassing it’s definitely worth seeking out. Chailly’s version of Die Seejungfrau was recorded some nine years before Conlon’s, but seems timeless, because Chailly and the Berlin Radio Orchestra are more refined, getting closer to the complexities in Zemlinsky’s music. Refinement is important in Zemlinsky’s lush, fin-de–siècle idiom. Die Seejungfrau, written in 1903 was the composer’s take on the splendours of the very late Romantic. It’s a fairy tale, after all, albeit gruesome, and needs a light, magical touch, so the delicate textures can breathe. Conlon plays up the obvious pictorial aspects of the piece enthusiastically, but there’s more to this music than there is in this fairly straightforward recording. In 2005, he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this piece at the Proms (see review) with much more clarity and emotional charge. The Gürzenich Orchestra, is good - they played with Mahler no less - so perhaps Conlon brought to the Proms performance the benefit of several more years of “living with” the music.

Another great Zemlinsky performer and perhaps the Zemlinsky authority par excellence is Anthony Beaumont. He is so attuned to the composer’s idiom that anything he does is worth listening to, whoever he may be working with. Beaumont’s recording, with the Czech Philharmonic is livelier though Conlon’s approach moves with an expansive sweep. 

For a long time, Chailly’s Lyrische Symphony, with Alessandra Marc and Hagegård was one to get. Because I’m fond of Dorothy Dorow, I also like the early Gabriele Ferro recording where she sings – magnificently if somewhat over the top – with Sigmund Nimsgern. Beaumont’s recording is orchestrally lucid but suffers from indifferent singing, a fatal weakness in a work so demanding of singers. Beaumont, however, uses a new edition of the score where inconsistencies and errors are cleaned up, liberating the music so to speak. Thus Eschenbach’s recording truly was groundbreaking, building upon Beaumont’s scholarship and insight. The Orchestre de Paris gives Eschenbach such beautifully refined, clear colours that they prove what Beaumont meant when he said “In performance, the score requires Mozartean grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty only when performed with discipline and cool-headed restraint”. The symphony shines with Eschenbach, and his singers, Schäfer and Goerne are utterly unequalled. Conlon has the excellent Soile Isokoski, but she alone isn’t enough to rescue this recording from leaden fussiness in the orchestral playing. As Beaumont also said “often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work”. He wasn’t referring to Conlon’s recording which was made long after Beaumont published his commentary, but it describes it uncomfortably closely. The Lyric Symphony may dwell on erotic love and sumptuous exoticism, but its aim is liberation of the spirit. If a performance is earthbound, it misses the point completely. The Eschenbach recording is so good that it’s one of my Desert Island Discs (please see review). Poor Conlon is no competition.

For the Cymbeline Suite, Beaumont is again the comparison, This is another fairy tale, this time from Shakespeare, so again diaphanous textures are a good idea, but Conlon’s dream-like leisureliness isn’t inappropriate – the plot does, after all involve potions that numb the senses! This allows Conlon to dwell on the rococo that has for so long dominated Zemlinsky’s image. But the composer is no “lesser Wagner”, as Frühlingsbegräbnis demonstrates. This piece is contemporary with Hugo Wolf’s ventures into the genre. Where Conlon does score well is in these early pieces, before Zemlinsky’s style takes on a more complex edge. Thus Tanzpoem waltzes along gracefully, culminating in a coda that’s pure Hollywood. 

This release is a 3 CD set reissue of previously released recordings. Anyone familiar with Zemlinsky will already have the originals, while new listeners are advised to seek out alternatives. It’s priced very low, which should appeal to those wanting a complete set of Zemlinsky recordings, since Conlon is, after all, important to the genre. Others might want to spend a bit more and get other recordings: in the long term what makes something cheap isn’t the initial price but how much high value listening you get.

Anne Ozorio


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