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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) orchestral fantasy (1903) [45.16]
Es war einmal (Once upon a time): Prelude and Interlude, from fairy tale opera (1899) [10.15]
ORF Radio Symphonieorchester, Wien/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, May 2010 Konzerthaus, August 2012 ORF Sendesaal (Es war einmal), Vienna
CPO 777 962-2 [55.34]

This album consists of a pair of orchestral works based on fairy tales, written by the Viennese composer Zemlinsky.

Described by the composer as an orchestral fantasy, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) is a large-scale symphonic poem with a programme based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. In the tale, the Mermaid leaves the palace of the Sea King at the bottom of the ocean, rescues a handsome Prince from a shipwreck and falls in love with him, but her love is unrequited, and he marries someone else. Following a transfiguration, the Mermaid obtains immortality. It seems that Zemlinsky readily identified with the Mermaid, who suffers the heavy consequences of falling in love, as he wrote the score in the wake of his rejection by Alma Schindler who subsequently married Gustav Mahler.

It was first performed in 1905, in concert in Vienna; the programme included the première of his brother-in-law Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande. Although relatively early, it is one of Zemlinsky’s finest works, a plush late-Romantic score requiring a large orchestra. It can be enjoyed even if one knows only the essence of the Mermaid’s story and certainly without having to be familiar with the plot details. Surprisingly, Zemlinsky withdrew Die Seejungfrau and it wasn’t until 1984, when scores of the three movements that had been separated in America and Vienna were identified and brought together, that full performances could begin.

Cornelius Meister and his outstanding ORF Radio Symphonieorchester make a full, glorious sound and one senses the orchestra feels a special affinity for this attractive music written in its home town. Under Meister’s baton, the distinctively sumptuous writing feels as if it’s bursting at the seams with its billowing and contracting landscape. It opens with an atmospheric evocation of a sea bed; swirling with intense passion, the mood shifts from often aria-like melodiousness to ecstatic climaxes depicting a furious storm at sea. The score often feels uncommonly cinematic, especially in the second movement. Such a vividly colourful performance and impressive orchestral detail clearly indicate that the players were well rehearsed. Riccardo Chailly has recorded several Zemlinsky works with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and his 1986 Jesus-Christus-Kirche account of Die Seejungfrau on Decca (c/w Psalms 13 & 23) is rightly acclaimed. Meister’s account of this symphonic poem is first-rate and certainly deserves to be placed alongside Chailly’s recording.

Lasting just over ten minutes here, the Prelude and Interlude is from the fairy tale opera Es war einmal (Once upon a time), written in 1899 and successfully premièred the following year in Vienna under Mahler. Although beautifully played, with a sound world not too far away from Die Seejungfrau and an undertow of threat and anxiety, this isn’t a work that engages me greatly.

There is some minor, extraneous noise in these live recordings but nothing too problematic; otherwise, the sound is warm, clear and well balanced. There’s an essay in the booklet by musicologist Eckhardt van den Hoogen. A minor gripe is that the Sinfonietta, Op. 23 could have filled the available space on the disc, but, in truth, it’s hard to find fault with this impressive account of Die Seejungfrau.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey


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