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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Seven Songs of Night and Dream (1895-1901) (arr. 2013, Richard Dünser) [18:09]
Chamber Symphony (1913-1915) (arr. of String Quartet No. 2 in 2013 by Richard Dünser) [42:43]
Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. Korundi House of Culture, Rovaniemi, Finland, 23-24 January 2015
ONDINE ODE1272-2 [61:23]

If you had no idea that Alexander Zemlinsky wrote an orchestral song cycle 'Seven Songs of Night and Dream' or a Chamber Symphony the simple answer is, he didn't. These are arrangements of Zemlinsky works. These chamber orchestra arrangements are by the Austrian composer Richard Dünser. The liner-note is titled; "music crying out for the orchestra" and makes two main points in justifying these arrangements. Firstly, as that title suggests, that this is music which strains at the confines of its original form. Secondly it is contended that the proliferation of virtuosic chamber orchestras requires a repertoire of music above and beyond the standard classical/romantic fare. The liner - in English, German and Finnish - includes an extended article by Dünser explaining aspects of the arranging process.

There is a counter-argument that applies; part of the fascination of the originals is how a composer with Zemlinsky's extraordinary technical resource managed to create such powerful and colourful scores within the 'limitations' of either a voice and keyboard or - in the case of the Chamber Symphony - a string quartet. Both arrangements and their performances here are very skilfully crafted and virtuosically performed. In terms of the listening experience I enjoyed the song-cycle much more than the symphony. Except for the addition of a harp in the songs and a second clarinet to the symphony Dünser uses the same orchestration for both works: single flute, pair of oboes, single clarinet and bassoon, two horns, basset horn and strings. Part of Dünser's reasoning is to stay close to the instrumentation that Schönberg used in his Chamber Symphony - a work that the Zemlinsky quartet references and to whom the quartet is dedicated.

For the cycle Dünser has selected a group of his favourite early Zemlinsky songs - written between 1896 and 1901- which share the theme of sleep and dreaming. He has transposed four of the songs to give the cycle a coherent key scheme within the new cycle. In the liner Dünser makes it clear that his intention was not to orchestrate these songs slavishly in the style of the young Zemlinsky. At the same time he has not sought wholly to re-imagine them in the way Berio does with his 'arrangements' of earlier composers' scores. The through theme of night and dream makes for a broadly similar mood - lyrical and lush. This is underlined by the warm and attractive singing of mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt. Carlstedt has spent many years as a member of the Frankfurt Opera so her evident comfort with the language and the idiom is understandable.

The span of a dozen years between the latest of these songs and the String Quartet No.2 saw Zemlinsky's musical style and vocabulary become much more personal and complex. The liner rightly points out that the songs look backwards as much as they look forwards with a homage to Brahms as well as echoes of early Mahler. In the cycle Dünser has chosen a less elaborate style with clarity and simplicity being the watchwords. Rather frustratingly the liner, which gives full texts in German and translated English, does not list the source of the original songs. They are:-

1) Der Traum Op.2 Book 2 No.3;
2) Das verlassene Mädchen Op.2 Book 2 No.5
3) Um Mitternacht Op.2 Book 1 No.6
4) Schlaf nur ein Op.5 Book 1 No.1
5) Und hat der Tag all seine Qual Op.8 No.2
6) Ich geh' des Nachts Op.6 No.4
7) Vöglein Schwermut Op.10 No.3.

The progression from the open-ness of the 1895 Op.2 songs to the extra layers of musical and emotional ambiguity of the Op.10, half a dozen years later, is marked and well pointed here both in the singing and in Dünser's orchestration.

In both works the Lapland Chamber Orchestra play with great commitment and considerable virtuosity. The Quartet/Symphony in particular is a ferociously demanding score and the players give their considerable best. I am less impressed by the recording quality. Ondine are usually one of the finest of the smaller independent companies. Technically however I find the orchestra to be rather closely and oppressively recorded. This is particularly true in the Symphony. The liner does not list the players so I cannot be certain of the string strength involved - small for sure. The microphones seem to pick up a lot of front-desk playing and with a score as dense and complex as this one the effect makes for a rather overheated listening experience. In the song-cycle, Dünser's deployment of the harp lightens textures and is used to cover keyboard figurations beyond the reach the other orchestral instruments. I did wonder if it was a fraction too prominently balanced within the orchestral mix.

Zemlinsky's String Quartet No.2 - indeed all four of his numbered quartets - are extraordinary works. I use that word advisedly; extraordinary for the very reason that he employs 'just' four essentially monophonic instruments to create music of remarkably extended tonality and rich texture. As recorded here I find Dünser's arrangement thickens and makes more opaque many of Zemlinsky's lines. What is already demanding and complex music for the listener becomes intractable. I want an arrangement to cast new light on a familiar work - quite the opposite effect to the one I have here. That Zemlinsky could martial extended orchestral forces himself when required is not in doubt but he did so with a subtler hand than Dünser achieves here. Too often musical lines are simply doubled - a very insistent use of high clarinet and violin springs to mind - which to a degree helps lead the ear but also adds layers of texture to an already thick score. When Dünser does reduce the instrumentation and allows the wind group a passage the score immediately gains light and airiness and hugely to its advantage. This is already a big score; running to over forty-two minutes for the whole five movement work. In that regard conductor John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra are very good at navigating the large scale of the work - this is an impassioned and red-blooded performance. Given that I have a strong penchant for arrangements and orchestrations this is one of the few times I feel the original is substantially better in terms of musical clarity and lucidity than the arrangement. Less is most certainly more in this case. Passages where the textures thin - the fifth movement Langsam is the most consistently effective section of the work for me - are quite beautiful. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra find a mood of poignant regret that is very moving and bring the work to an effective close.

Original versions of all these works are in the catalogue and in very fine versions. The 'new' song cycle seems to me to fulfil its remit most successfully and this performance is excellent in every respect. The larger - in every sense - work is a tougher nut and in this orchestral form one I have not yet cracked. Having listened several times to this performance I went back to the original quartet - the Escher Quartet on Naxos are a particular favourite. Perhaps because of familiarity that performance - and the sound of the work - made sense and was far less intractable than the version presented here. I continue to struggle with this re-imagined version for all the skill demonstrated by all concerned. A not wholly convincing case for Zemlinsky's music in orchestral guise.

Nick Barnard



 

 




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