Two numbered symphonies by Zemlinsky to add to his more frequently recorded Sinfonietta and Lyric Symphony. Look again though. These are early works by a young composer still under the romantic thrall.
This coupling has appeared before. James Conlon, who has set down for EMI Classics more Zemlinsky than any other conductor, recorded these two symphonies. Naxos issued them together, first on Marco Polo and then on Naxos under two different conductors, Ludovit Rajter and Edgar Seipenbusch each with Slovak orchestras. I do not know the Conlon (Gürzenich Orchestra; Kölner Philharmoniker; CDC 556473 2) but I have heard the Naxos and from an interpretative stance it is by no means inferior to the Brabbins. Also out there are good recordings of the Second Symphony by Zemlinsky specialist and biographer Adrian Beaumont (Nimbus NI 5682 and Chandos CHAN10204) and by Riccardo Chailly (Decca). Beaumont also recorded the First Symphony for Chandos on CHAN10138.
It is not Brabbins’ way to rush these works. The First Symphony is an apprentice effort that speaks a language related to that of the Brahms serenades. It does so across three movements. The style is an accustomed one and the emotional range is diverting and charming rather than sharply dramatic. It’s a case of early Dvořák rather than late Brahms. Brabbins gives the music an affectionate run for its money. Four years later and we reach the Second Symphony. The music inhabits a world similar to that of Dvořák - this time the middle period symphonies: 4-6. The musical argument is broadly relaxed and generally smiling as it is with its predecessor. However in this case four years of development reaps an occasionally more dramatic turn of phrase. While this later work carries no pre-echoes at all of Zemlinsky’s expressionist convictions the world it moves through is emotionally more complex and is no stranger to tragedy. It’s pleasing and engaging rather than utterly compelling.
Brabbins and Hyperion allow us to hear Zemlinsky as the expansive romantic mid-European young man of the 1890s. The audio quality is very attractive - indeed superior - and the notes by Gavin Plumley cover all the right bases.
And a second review ...
Back in the 1980s Riccardo Chailly made recordings for Decca of orchestral and choral/orchestral music by Zemlinsky. I bought some of these, including one of the B flat symphony - it wasn’t listed by Decca as ‘Symphony No 2’, incidentally. I don’t believe these Chailly recordings are generally available at present. It’s a long time since I listened to Chailly’s recording of the symphony and you may think that says a lot about the quality of the music. Actually, I think it reflects a shortage of listening time on my part and hearing this new recording by Martyn Brabbins made me regret that I’ve overlooked the work for so long.
As Gavin Plumley points out in his notes for Hyperion, at the time that he composed these two symphonies Zemlinsky was caught between two stools. On the one hand there was the innate musical conservatism of the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied. On the other there was the heady influence of the progressive music by the likes of Wagner and Richard Strauss that he could hear in the opera house and concert hall. In many ways these two prentice symphonies, the Second especially, reflect the creative tension that these diametrically opposed influences had on the young Zemlinsky. However, by comparison with his later oeuvre these two compositions lean more towards the conservative strand in his musical upbringing; certainly they are a long way from the opulent, chromatic harmonic language of his masterpiece, the Lyrische Symphonie (1922-23).
The First Symphony was completely new to me. The first movement has a truly Brahmsian feel to it, both in terms of the musical material and the scoring. I should say I haven’t seen scores of either work so I don’t know the precise forces for which Zemlinsky wrote but my ears suggest that he wrote for a Brahmsian orchestra with no ‘exotic’ additions to the orchestration. This wasn’t his first attempt at a symphony - there had been an abortive effort in 1891 - but the music in this opening Allegro ma on troppo certainly sounds confident: Zemlinsky felt ready to write in symphonic form and for the orchestra. Much - perhaps too much - is made of the melodic idea that we hear right at the outset of the movement. The music is mainly quite vigorous and it makes enjoyable listening.
The attractive scherzo sounds akin to a Bohemian dance though there’s a slower, genial trio (from 1:54) that has a Brahmsian feel to it. The slow movement is marked Sehr inning und breit (‘Very sincere and broad’). At the start the music is warm, reflective and long-breathed. A little later (from 2:35) there’s a more agitated spell before the mood of the opening is re-established. The last few pages are notably beautiful. The finale is attractive and good-natured but I wonder whether the ideas are sufficiently assertive: does the movement ‘gel’? Gavin Plumley opines that the coda is ‘not entirely fully earned’ and I think that’s a prescient judgement. Nonetheless, I’m not about to dismiss either the finale or, still less, the symphony as a whole and the present performance is very persuasive indeed.
Zemlinsky wrote his B flat symphony in 1897, the year in which Brahms died, and the shadow of that great composer is cast over this composition too. The first movement has a slow and somewhat rhetorical introduction which I find engages the listener’s attention. I can’t better Gavin Plumley’s description of the main allegro of the movement; he says that ‘nods to Dvořák keep Zemlinsky within the Brahmsian fold, yet the call of Siegfried and the Mastersingers from the Hofoper across the Ringstrasse is equally unmistakeable.’ Throughout the course of the movement, Plumley says ‘these parties duke it out’. The music is energetic and also positive in nature. However, I do wonder if the movement isn’t a bit too long - it plays here for 16:26. I like the third, slow movement very much. Some noble, powerful writing for brass catches the ear but, in truth, the scoring for all the orchestra throughout the movement’s span is rich and effective. The melodic material is appealing also. This is a thoughtful and warmly lyrical movement.
Plumley describes the finale as a ‘homage’ to Brahms in that Zemlinsky follows the example of Brahms in his Fourth Symphony by concluding with a passacaglia. Indeed, the very start of the movement sounds uncannily like the Brahms exemplar. There are, apparently, 26 variations and whilst the young Zemlinsky can’t match the mastery of the mature Brahms his variations are very interesting and often skilful, not least in their compression. The movement wears a more cheerful countenance overall than the equivalent movement in the Brahms symphony and it has a very definitely major-key ending. It may well be that the music was composed after the death of Brahms - he died in April of that year - in which case it seems that Zemlinsky’s homage was intended to celebrate Brahms rather than to mourn him.
As I indicated earlier, these two symphonies are a long way from the music of Zemlinsky’s maturity. I don’t think either could be claimed as an unjustly neglected masterpiece but by no means are they devoid of interest. On the contrary, both works are skilful compositions that are enjoyable and rewarding to hear. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC NOW give them excellent and committed performances, which have been recorded in excellent sound. Though there are other versions of both symphonies on the market anyone looking to expand their knowledge of this important figure in early twentieth century music by learning about his early output will find this disc an excellent way of doing just that.