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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Die Seejungfrau (1905) (world premiere recording of the new critical edition) [47:36]
Sinfonietta Op.23 (1934) (world premiere recording of version for chamber orchestra (2013) by Roland Freisitzer) [21:35]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds
Recorded: Helsinki Music Centre, Finland 2-4 September 2014
SACD Surround 5:0 SACD Stereo CD Stereo
ONDINE ODE1237-5 SACD [69:25]

Curiouser and Curiouser. In the liner-note for his 2003 recording of Die Seejungfrau for Chandos Anthony Beaumont wrote; "I took a careful look at these autograph manuscripts .... and soon realised that the copyist who prepared the published score had not always succeeded in deciphering Zemlinsky's handwriting. Though the degree of error was not high enough to justify a new edition." [my italics] Likewise in his excellent biography of the composer (Faber & Faber 2000) on page 125 Beaumont writes; "Before the world premiere [Zemlinsky] made substantial cuts including a sailors' bacchanal in the first movement and the entire scene of the Mermaid's ordeal with the Mer-witch, a passage of 75 bars, in the second movement." Fast forward to the current issue and Beaumont now writes "Nevertheless, over a century after the world première, the need still remains for a fully integrated critical edition". So which is it? This last quote comes from a very interesting publication from Universal Edition viewable here which I recommend reading not just for Beaumont's article but another by James Conlon on Zemlinsky and in fact a whole series of fascinating writings on a variety of topics. This article is in fact the distilled basis for Beaumont's liner-note for this new disc. My query remains; when is a critical edition a necessity or not? Additional questions are raised including the following: in removing the Sailors' Bacchanal Zemlinsky irreversibly glued the pages of score together so they cannot be recovered/restored. For the Mer-witch scene he simply removed those pages from the score and re-wrote a brief transition. Which means that this new recording - proudly proclaiming to be a 'complete' version of Die Seejungfrau is in fact as much as can be recovered and is performed in a version never sanctioned by the composer and which is incomplete even in terms of his first thoughts. Also, at what point do we take a composer as meticulous and considered as Zemlinsky at his word and accept that the version first performed is the version he wanted first performed?

All of which - in this age of the all-important USP - brings me to this disc adorned with the sticker "World Premiere Recordings" — a statement which will get any self-respecting Zemlinsky-fan's heart racing. It turns out that these premieres are in effect the excised Mer-witch scene for which there seems to be no reason for its reinstatement except that it exists and a chamber orchestra version of the Sinfonietta prepared in 2013. Interestingly, Beaumont outlines the 'evolution' of the performing material for Die Seejungfrau which mirrors the four recordings to which I have access. First there was the world premiere recording from Riccardo Chailly and the Berlin RSO on Decca 417 450-2 using copies of the original performance materials. Then James Conlon with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln on EMI/Warner employed a re-copied score created for Conlon's use. Then came Beaumont's own version with the Czech PO (Chandos) which swept up the last few copyist's errors in the 'standard' score before this latest version of the so-called critical edition. Aside from the obvious extra music in the latter version I have to say that you need better ears and greater familiarity than I possess to hear vast differences in the performed text. Much more crucial - it seems to me - is the spirit in which the piece is performed. Without doubt this is an extraordinary work. Premiered in 1905 in the same concert as Schoenberg's Pelléas and Melisande it rather fell under the shadow of the other work. There were two further performances in Berlin in 1906 (in the same programme as the premiere of Vaughan Williams' Norfolk Rhapsody No.1) and then the following year in Prague. After that came oblivion - Zemlinsky even omitting it from a list of his own works compiled as a CV in 1910 - until its revival in 1984. Now, along with the Lyric Symphony it has become Zemlinsky's best-known and most often recorded work although 'best-known' remains a relative word in terms of general popularity.

Ondine grace these works with one of their reliably fine and detailed recordings. I was not able to listen to the SA-CD layer but the standard 2-channel layer is excellent. The lower end of the orchestra and the double basses in particular are rich and resonant and project with great clarity. Compared to this the Chandos recording is more homogenised with instrumental textures blended in the hall before being caught by the microphone. Not that I prefer the Ondine sound - it is simply a different chosen approach. Having said there is good detail some elements of the score seem strangely reticent which I have to put down to interpretative choice. There are two examples of this right at the beginning of the central movement. After a swelling tremolando from strings the horns enter with a cinematically heroic figure which is well audible on Chandos, thrillingly dynamic on Decca and all but very backward in the mix for both EMI and this new disc. This fanfare is then cut short by a - radical for 1905 - trombone glissando which for the life of me I cannot hear at all on this new disc to the point that I wonder if it has been editorially excised. Another example comes immediately after the new section. I took the Chandos and Decca versions as comparators and on this new disc the new material starts at track 2 7:30 (which equates to around 6:38 on Chandos and 6:40 on Decca) and comes out of it back to the 'usual' version at 11:36. Again here's a very odd balancing choice - some kind of 5.0 SA-CD artefact?. The lead melodic material is taken by the cellos with flute/woodwind accompaniments. On this new disc the frankly prosaic flute figure dominates to the near exclusion of the cellos. Focusing on this 'new' music for a moment I am not at all sure it is the strongest or most interesting section of the work. Yes, in narrative terms it fills a gap but Zemlinsky himself recognised early on in the work's creation that it was expanding far beyond a slavish programmatic representation of a popular fairytale. Once it becomes more than that does the removal of a narrative episode matter? Musically it develops in a less than inspired way - some of the motifs having a curious echo in the bass line of the Demon's chorus from Gerontius out of the descent into the mountain from Rheingold.

An interesting artistic dichotomy lies at the heart of this work. Zemlinsky was an intensely fastidious and thoughtful musician. As preparatory work for this score he studied Strauss' Heldenleben. To quote Beaumont from the Universal publication; "Since the death of Brahms,he had found inspiration in the music of Richard Strauss, indeed no work stands conceptually closer to The Mermaid than Ein Heldenleben. Yet Zemlinsky detected weaknesses in that score and determined that his own music should never make concessions to logic for the sake of effect. In his youth he had mastered the technique of variative development. Although his perspectives had since shifted, he saw no reason to abandon that craft." The key intellectual concept here is that he did not want to sacrifice his craft on the altar of popular effect. Yet this is also the work that he characterised as a preliminary study for a "Symphony of Death" and it was created in the emotional upheaval of his love for Alma Schindler. He started work on the score days before she married Mahler and in his biography Beaumont draws a direct psychological link between the mermaid willing to suffer excruciating pain for the sake of mortal love and Zemlinsky's enduring agony over his loss of Alma. Beaumont writes: "...'The first morning after he marries another your heart will break' warns the Mer-witch, 'and you shall become foam on the crest of a wave'; now that Alma had left him, his heart was indeed broken. She was to have been his Muse, but now instead of smiling on him like some benevolent goddess, she troubled his waking hours and tormented his dreams." So this is a score wracked with intensely felt human emotions. At the same time he determined to remain true to his compositional heritage of motivic logic and so he wrote to Schoenberg that the storm scene was, "a hell of a job if one wishes to avoid becoming cheap and vulgar."
My reason for addressing the processes behind the composition in such detail are to highlight the complexity of the job for both orchestra and conductor. This music needs to rage from the heart yet satisfy the head with intellectual control of form and structure too. My concern is that John Storgårds seems unwilling fully to unleash the tempest. For sure the orchestra play 'loud' as and when required but with little sense of straining at any kind of leash. In many ways I am not sure that any recording has quite matched the sense of discovery and excitement generated by Chailly and vintage Decca engineering from March 1986 by Michael Haas and Stanley Goodall recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin. Then again, I also like very much the perfectly burnished and blended tone of the Czech PO brass for Beaumont. One of the many memorable motifs in the work is the chorale-like figure that Zemlinsky told Schoenberg represented "Man's Eternal Soul". There's a glorious sense of valedictory arrival in Prague at this point. Next to either performance, for all the qualities of this new one and indeed the value[?] of the reinstated section, I would opt for the older alternatives first.

If that is true of the main work I feel it even more so when it comes to the coupling. Interestingly Conlon made the identical coupling but using the original/proper version of the Sinfonietta. Do not get me wrong; this is a very well constructed arrangement and very well played too. That said, again Storgårds crucially seems emotionally inhibited. I turn to Beaumont one more for a description: "Visions of joy and anxiety, pride and sorrow, humour and grief pass by with bewildering rapidity, intermingle, affirm and negate." The performance here emphasises the clarity and virtuosity of the score but I would challenge any listener to hear the range of emotions described above. Listening to this disc I remembered that I had a nearly identical reaction to Storgårds' two discs of Korngold for Ondine (also Ondine ODE11822)  - superbly executed but emotionally inert. Conlon - who for all his passionate commitment to the Zemlinsky cause I rarely put top of my listening list - produces a much more impressive performance as indeed does Beaumont, again with the Czech PO originally released on Nimbus coupled with the early B flat Symphony.

What rules this version out for me is this chamber orchestra edition. This is not a work so well known that the 'new light' of a reduced edition is needed or useful. Yes, in the concert hall and the repertoire of chamber orchestras but not in the recorded catalogue. It reminds me of 'salon orchestra' arrangements of major symphonies peddled by pier orchestras: useful in situ but redundant elsewhere.

Zemlinsky completists such as myself will ignore all my concerns because of the desire to hear the restored music. It is worth remembering the following quotation; "I owe almost all my knowledge of the technique and problems of composition to [Zemlinsky]. I always firmly believed he was a great composer, and I still believe it strongly.” - so wrote Arnold Schönberg in 1949. For anyone new to the world of Zemlinsky I urge them to hear these two works and especially Die Seejungfrau but trust Beaumont or Chailly as the superior storytellers.

Nick Barnard


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