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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Die Seejungfrau (1903) [45.16]
Es war einmal (1899): Prelude and Interlude [10.19]
ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vienna/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, Vienna Konzerthaus, 28 May 2010; ORF Sendesaal, 29-31 August 2012 (Es war einmal)
CPO 777 962-2 [5.34]

Zemlinsky’s Little Mermaid, an extended symphonic poem on the subject of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story, bids fair to establish itself as a regular work in the repertory, fully a hundred years after its completion, despite the fact that the score vanished after 1908. As is tolerably well known, the work after its initial success was allowed to lie fallow by the composer, who detached the first movement as a present to his friend Marie Pappenheim. The orchestral score was only re-assembled in 1984, and I remember hearing a broadcast of the first modern revival at that time and being mightily impressed by a symphonic ‘fantasy’ that had all the flair and panache one associates with Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems. Riccardo Chailly, who conducted that performance, subsequently recorded the work commercially; but on further listening I then found the score over-inflated in places, and although I still owned the CD I hadn’t listened to it for some years until after I reviewed a concert performance in Cardiff in 2014. On that occasion I noted that “the grand gestures no longer seemed over-blown, but part of the quasi-operatically dramatic development of the thematic material. The themes themselves were memorable, with one that reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and another which was a sort of cross between Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kalendar Prince and Mahler’s Klagende Lied, but were none the worse for that. The transformations, in particular, which the Rimsky/Mahler motif underwent were always characterful and meaningful, and elsewhere there were passages which anticipated Schoenberg in the prelude to Gürrelieder and even Bax’s Garden of Fand with its similarly maritime theme”. This new recording derives from a live performance in Vienna in 2010 (as is alas not uncommon, CPO have been sitting on the tapes for some years). But in the intervening period the indefatigable Zemlinsky scholar Anthony Beaumont has prepared a new edition of the score, restoring five minutes of music in the central movement, and this additional material was included in the Ondine recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds issued in October 2015. Nick Barnard, reviewing that recording for this site, professed himself unconvinced by the restoration of a passage which Zemlinsky himself had excised before the first performance (while another excision could not be restored, thus resulting in a compound version which the composer had never contemplated). Under the circumstances this recording of the older edition of the score, which reflects the music actually played in those early performances, warrants serious consideration alongside not only Chailly’s original studio recording but also Beaumont’s Chandos CD with the Czech Philharmonic.

That Chandos CD contained a substantial bonus in the form of Zemlinksy’s immature First Symphony, while the makeweight here consists merely of two sections from the composer’s first opera Es war einmal, an even earlier work than the main work here in whatever edition. It is also notable that this CD appears to be the only one which derives from a live performance, the others in the catalogue all being studio recordings (as indeed are the operatic extracts here). Indeed, these two orchestral sections from Es war einmal might well be regarded as the more significant of the items here, since the complete recording of the opera on Capriccio has long vanished from the catalogues, and the opera itself is also of interest because it too ultimately derives from The Swineherd, another of the fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Not that this important connection is mentioned in the extensive booklet note by the ubiquitous Eckhardt van den Hoogen, who in a lengthy essay of some nine pages or more devotes a great deal of time to his usual philosophical and psychological speculations without devoting more than half of his often impenetrable prose to the matter of the music under consideration. Not that this stops the writer from launching an attack on “a philosopher who is more interested in the idiosyncratic packing of his ideas than the completeness and correctness of his facts”. But then those who are acquainted with the writings of Eckhardt van den Hoogen will know what to expect.

Which brings me to the performance of Die Seejungfrau under consideration here, which considering it is drawn from a single live performance is very impressive indeed. Mind you, the very opening is rather bass-heavy, although this soon blossoms into a rapt delivery of the first of many of Zemlinsky’s violin solos by an unjustifiably anonymous player, and the seascape which follows anticipates the prelude to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder which was to follow some years later. The orchestral eruption (from track 1, 10.30) could however be somewhat more clearly articulated, and the following tranquil textures are clearer in the studio recordings. The beginning of the second movement is noisy rather than dramatic, and the excited horn calls at 1.12 (and again at 4.13) into the track are undesirably backwardly balanced in the mix. What this really serves to emphasise is that a score of the complexity of Die Seejungfrau is inevitably served better by a studio recording where these balances can be carefully adjusted. All the same, the delicate string playing at the opening of the third movement is delightful

The excerpts from Es war einmal, recorded in the studio, have a greater sense of atmosphere than the equivalent passages in the Capriccio set of the complete opera, taken from a Danish radio production. The opening of the prelude, with its poised violin lines, comes over with a real sense of atmosphere; the interlude begins with more matter-of-fact material, and the final chord which concludes the excerpt comes as quite a shock (although that is the form it takes also in the complete opera).

Zemlinsky completists will want the Storgårds version on Ondine for the sake of the controversially restored passage, but those who missed out on the Capriccio recording of Es war einmal (currently listed on Amazon at eye-watering prices ranging from £95.00 upwards!) will also welcome the excerpts from that opera included on this disc. Others who wish simply to make the acquaintance of the magnificent score which is Die Seejungfrau may prefer the Beaumont version on Chandos with its unique coupling of the early symphony, or the pioneering recording by Chailly on Decca which comes with two mature masterpieces in the shape of Zemlinsky’s settings of Psalm 13 and Psalm 23.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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