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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 Gespielin/Second Playmate).
Frankfurter Kantorei
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.
 
Ralph Moore