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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Symphonic Fantasy: Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) (1903) [41:06]
Sinfonietta (1934) [22:01]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 6-8 June 2006
NAXOS 8.570240 [63:26] 
Experience Classicsonline

This new recording competes very favourably with the two earlier Chandos recordings of Die Seejungfrau. The first of these was by Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on CHAN 9601. That disc also included the Sinfonietta. The second and more recent outing was the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording conducted by Antony Beaumont CHAN 10138. This had Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor as a coupling. When I reviewed Beaumont’s 2003 recording I wrote that although it is powerful enough, I preferred Chandos’s original 1997 recording, the more relaxed, more poetic, yet exciting view of Dausgaard.

The attractiveness and accessibility of Zemlinsky’s Fantasy has ensured its increasing popularity. It is extraordinarily evocative music - wonderfully tuneful. Little wonder that Zemlinsky influenced Korngold’s use of luscious orchestration.

Zemlinsky started work on Die Seejungfrau a few days before the wedding of the woman he loved, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler. He was devastated and it was years before he recovered from the blow. Clearly, The Mermaid’s story of rejected love had profound autobiographical significance at this time. Zemlinsky confided in Schoenberg that the work was actually a preliminary study for a projected ‘Symphony of Death’ that was never written. The composition is based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. On the seabed the mermaid becomes obsessed with the notion of becoming immortal by winning the love of a mortal. After she has saved the life of a prince from a shipwreck, she takes a magic potion to enable her to take human form in order to win the prince. But the price she has to pay to the sea-witch, who gives her the potion, is the loss of her tongue. Consequently the poor mermaid has to watch mute as her Prince marries a princess. Devastated, and in her agony, she plans to kill the prince in his sleep but at the last moment she throws away her knife and returns to the sea where, in her renunciation, she is transformed into foam and borne away on the wind as a spirit of the air.

The work, conceived in the grand Late-Romantic tradition, is scored for a large orchestra. Influences of Richard Strauss, especially, and Tchaikovsky are clear. There is atmospheric material for the opening scene on the seabed, powerfully evocative music for the storm that shipwrecks the prince, erotic, voluptuous, perfumed music for the mermaid’s dreaming of love and immortality and of yearning and sweet devotion for her unresponsive prince.

Judd’s reading is sumptuously evocative of the sea in its calm and stormy turbulence; and fully committed to the work’s heart-rending emotional drama. The Fantasy, as conceived by Zemlinsky, is more concerned with thematic development than literal ‘mickey-mousing’ evocations. The Naxos sound engineering is first class too. 

The Sinfonietta of 1934 is quite a different matter. Three decades after The Mermaid Zemlinsky was on a much more astringent path, one closer to that trodden by Stravinsky, Mahler and Hindemith. The style and elegance of Zemlinsky’s old Vienna was fast disappearing. Here there is a much spikier outlook, a sardonic tread to the music, an air of disillusion. Bitter, ironic wit is juxtaposed with the occasional nostalgic backward-glancing, sweet lyricism – all tinged with heavy poignancy. Brutality jostles dreaming. Judd probes deeply into this extraordinary work’s fatalism and disenchantment. 

Although the Dausgaard Chandos recording remains my first choice, I would not like to be without this terrifically exciting and evocative new album by the New Zealand Orchestra. At super bargain price it has to be irresistible.

Ian Lace 






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