Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Der Zwerg (Original version) (1921)
Soile Isokoski - Donna Clara; Iride Martinez - Ghita; Andrew Collis
- Don Estoban; David Kuebler - Der Zwerg; Juanita Lascarro - Erste Zofe/First
Maid; Machiko Obata - Zweite Zofe/Second Maid; Anne Schwanewllms - Dritte
Zofe/Third Maid; Natalle Karl - Erste Gespielin/First Playmate; Natalle
Karl - Zweite Gespielin/Second Playmate; Martina Rüping - Zweite
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/James Conlon
rec. live, February 1996, Köln, stereo. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 7258752 [54:52 + 60:42]
While listening to Der Zwerg, I found that
the opera which comes most often to mind for purposes of comparative
listening is Puccini’s Turandot, although in fact Zemlinksy
finished the short score in 1919 and orchestrated this version in 1921,
while Puccini’s opera was still unfinished at the time of his
death in 1924. It has a shimmering, expressionist quality marked by frequent,
abrupt changes of mood and a certain lack of melodiousness in comparison
with Turandot even though its leitmotifs are readily identifiable.
It is equally tempting to identify other influences such as Richard
Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena, especially when the
choral passages seem to ape Strauss’s chirpy elves, but in fact
Helena was not written until1928, so it seems that we must accord
Zemlinsky greater originality than is at first apparent. Several listenings
in, I am increasingly reconciled to its choppy nature and more inclined
to appreciate its lyrical interludes. I am certainly pleased by its
inventive orchestration which includes prominent featuring of a mandolin,
harps and raucous trumpets to balance the swooning strings.
Its subject matter is loosely adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short
story “The Birthday of the Infanta”. It is famously redolent
of the composer’s lingering resentment over his rejection by his
pupil Alma Schindler in favour of Gustav Mahler.
The singing is first class, especially Isokoski’s lambent, flickering
soprano but reactions to David Kuebler’s hard-voiced tenor as
the dwarf will depend upon how much the listener is prepared to sacrifice
vocal beauty to dramatic verisimilitude. I find prolonged exposure to
his sound wearing despite its aptness. The first voices we hear are
both impressive: soprano Iride Martinez and baritone Andrew Collis.
The latter has especially fine German diction and a splendidly firm,
virile baritone; I am surprised that we have not heard more of him internationally.
The Cologne orchestra is really impressive; one would never suspect
that we are listening to a supposedly “provincial” orchestra.
Ultimately I do not find Zemlinsky’s music all that compelling
but it is very atmospheric. It creates a certain compelling momentum
of its own as the melancholy fairy tale unfolds of an Alberich who yearns
for love rather than renounces it.
The sound is unimpeachable. A synopsis and libretto are available online.