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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
A Florentine Tragedy [54:37]
Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op. 13 [19:35]
Bianca – Heike Wessels (mezzo); Guido Bardi – Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor); Simone – Albert Dohmen (baritone); Petra Lang (mezzo) (Op. 13)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 26 Sept 2012 (A Florentine Tragedy); 22 Sept 2010 (Op. 13)

There seems to be a bit more of Zemlinsky’s music on the scene these days, and a good thing too. He has had a tendency to be overlooked, mainly because of his more famous and successful colleagues, but his heady fin-de-siècle sound-world holds many treasures and is definitely worth exploring.

In many ways, A Florentine Tragedy exemplifies both all that is best about Zemlinsky and the reasons why he has been sidelined. The similarities to Salome are uncomfortably close: it’s a one-act opera based on a tale by Oscar Wilde; it involves over-the-top, highly sexed imagery; and its music shimmers and glimmers with all the sparkling colour of the Viennese fin-de-siècle. Zemlinsky was clearly operating in Strauss’s shadow, and the fact that his opera was not premiered until 1917 merely underlined the fact that he had made the jump too late and that fashion had moved on.

Strauss’s ghost hangs over several aspects of the score. The lush, overtly sexualised prelude, for example, is uncomfortably close to that of Rosenkavalier. Simone's descriptions of his wares put me in mind of Herod's sensuality in Salome, and when listening to the opera you can easily picture the Jugendstil opulence that Zemlinsky must have had in mind for his original production. However, if Zemlinsky is Strauss-light then he does Strauss-light very well indeed. The orchestration, for one thing, is beautifully delicate; sparkling and reflective, tempered to every nuance of the text. Guido and Bianca's love music is particularly heady, and the structure of the opera centres on a screw-like building of tension, culminating in the final duet, but then producing a gloriously luscious release at the end. As a work of art, I found it remarkable, and it’s definitely one I’ll be going back to.

The performance here is very strong, too, captured live during a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall. The orchestra revel in the heady late-Romantic textures, and the sound is recorded very well so as to give the lush textures space to breathe. It wallows without becoming too indulgent, and the treading of that fine line is thanks to Vladimir Jurowski’s sympathy with and understanding of the score.

He has also assembled a very good cast. As the cuckolded merchant Simone, Albert Dohmen is gruff and earthy. He has that important senses of knowingness right from the start, but he assumes the role of a grand hero during the scene when he sings of adultery and its effects (track 9). His rival in love is Sergei Skorokhodov who, like many Russian tenors, sings with a hint of smoke to the voice. He is dark but heroic and exciting, especially as he leaps into the upper registers in his expressions of love — and fobbing off the husband. While she doesn’t have as much to do, Heike Wessels sings with dark and suggestive tone, revelling in the voice’s lower registers in a way that put me in mind of Brigitte Fassbaender at times.

One of the decisive moments in Zemlinsky’s life was Alma Schindler’s rejection of him in favour of Gustav Mahler. There are traces of this in A Florentine Tragedy and in his most famous opera, Der Zwerg. It comes through in the Maeterlinck songs, too, all of which are, to some degree, about the loss of a relationship and its consequences. Maeterlinck's opaquely allusive texts suit Zemlinsky's sound-world very well, with gorgeous orchestration at play again. Jurowski really revels in the swooping textures of the songs’ music: listen to the relish with which he slides into the frequent glissandi in the orchestral texture. Sadly, Petra Lang's voice is marked out by the warble that has beset her voice recently and which so bothered me in her Wagner. Too often she lunges for the note and hitches herself up towards the high notes which sound like a struggle. It’s worthy enough, but I couldn't wallow in the sound of her voice as I could the sound of the orchestra, which is a shame, because everything else here is so good.

By the way, you get the full German text and English translation for the Maeterlinck songs, but only the English translation for the opera, so you’ll have to pay close attention if you’re to avoid getting lost.

Simon Thompson