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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Die Seejungfrau (1903)
Fantasy in three movements for large orchestra after a fairy-tale by Andersen (Anthony Beaumont edition, 2015)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. live 10-12 November 2019, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. DDD
PENTATONE PTC5186740 [47:30]

Zemlinsky composed his ‘Fantasy’ Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) in 1903. In January 1905 it received its first performance, in Vienna, at what turned out to be the last concert given under the auspices of the Society of Creative Musicians; Zemlinsky and Schoenberg had been two of the Society’s founders. This I learned from the excellent notes by my Seen and Heard colleague, Mark Berry, who goes on to relate that after two more performances, in Berlin and Prague, Zemlinsky withdrew the score, even though it had been cordially received in Vienna. At some stage the unpublished score was broken up; the composer took the last two sections of it with him when he fled Europe for the USA in 1938 but the manuscript of the opening movement was given to his friend, Marie Poppenheim. It was not until the 1980s that the two elements of the score were reunited, leading to a performance in autumn 1984 by the Austrian Youth Philharmonic and Peter Gülke. Even then, neither the story nor the score was complete: part of the second movement – the episode of the Mer-witch - was missing at first; it was reinstated by the Zemlinsky scholar and conductor, Anthony Beaumont when he made his critical edition, published in 2015. That’s the version that Marc Albrecht uses here.

I first became acquainted with the piece through the 1986 Decca recording by the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. That recording, the work’s first, was set down in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche. It still sounds very good more than 30 years on, and Chailly’s reading is a fine one. However, the Beaumont edition was not available to him, of course, which is the prime reason why his account of the second movement plays for just 12:20 compared to Albrecht’s 17:06. Overall, Chailly’s performance plays for 40:16. Interestingly, Anthony Beaumont himself recorded the work back in 2003 but he used the then-current score (review).

The background to the restoration of the cuts is discussed by Nick Barnard in his very thorough review of the 2014 recording conducted by John Storgårds, which was the first to use the Beaumont critical edition. So far as I’m aware, all subsequent recordings have used that edition. I was fascinated to learn from Nick’s review that Zemlinsky made the cuts before the first performance of the work. That casts the Chailly and Beaumont recordings in a different light. Both may have been overtaken by the publication of the critical edition but there’s a strong case to be made that neither is superseded because they give us the score as released for public performance by Zemlinsky.

The score calls for a large, but not excessive, orchestra which includes triple woodwind – plus one extra player in each of the flute and clarinet sections – six horns, three trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (2), strings and two harps. Zemlinsky uses these forces to paint an opulently coloured musical picture.

The work takes as its inspiration a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Briefly, the story is as follows. The Mermaid in question is the youngest daughter - of six – of an undersea king. One day she swims to the surface of the sea. She sees a ship on which a young prince is celebrating his birthday. Then the ship is wrecked in a sudden storm; she rescues the prince and brings him to shore. Desperate to follow the prince, she begs the help of the sea-witch who gives her a potion to make her human, including the replacement of her tail with legs. Though the prince becomes very fond of her, he is committed to an arranged marriage. The sea-witch then tells the Mermaid that she can revert to her original form but only if she stabs the prince to death. The Mermaid has an opportunity to carry out the deed on the prince’s wedding night but cannot bring herself to slay him. She flees, rushing into the sea, but her body begins to melt away. However, she is taken up to join the company of the daughters of the air. That’s a very brief summary – I’ve made a précis of Peter Gülke’s note in the booklet accompanying Chailly’s recording. Actually, one only needs to know the bare bones of the story because Zemlinsky’s Fantasy is not programme music; indeed, Mark Berry points out that the composer repeatedly referred to the work as a ‘symphonic poem’. However, the score is illustrative of the key elements of the story. For instance, there’s a short violin solo early on which presents for the first time the Mermaid’s theme. Later in the opening movement, the storm is graphically illustrated. Also, we can clearly discern the depiction of the witch in the second movement while the Mermaid’s assumption into the ranks of the daughters of the air is clear to hear as the work draws to a close.

As an example of luscious late-Romantic orchestral writing, Die Seejungfrau could scarcely be bettered. The scoring is frequently as opulent and rich as anything produced by Richard Strauss. Yet Zemlinsky handles his material and his large orchestral forces with consummate skill. The textures, though rich, are never cloying or overdone and Zemlinsky reveals himself to be a master of orchestral colouring; the sound of the orchestra constantly ravishes the ear – or, in episodes such as the storm, is terrifically exciting. If this were not enough, the thematic material is very strong in character and the themes lend themselves to development. There’s a gorgeous melodic vein running through the score, as, for instance, in the second movement at 11:29 where the cellos introduce a memorable melody which is then taken up elsewhere in the orchestra. To compound our pleasure, that cello theme is, on its first appearance, bedecked with beautiful colours in the subsidiary orchestral parts. The last few minutes of the final movement (from 10:34) are superb. This long coda, representing the Mermaid’s transformation, begins in most delicate fashion but gradually expands into rapturous, resplendent music before the work achieves a quiet, warm conclusion.

I think Die Seejungfrau is a fine, inventive score and here it receives a splendid performance. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra plays the music with great virtuosity and commitment. Marc Albrecht seems to be in full command of every aspect of the score. The performance has been captured in a top-quality recording which does full justice to the opulence of Zemlinsky’s score and which reveals plenty of detail in a very natural way. Though the recording stems from live performances there is no audible evidence of the presence of the well-behaved audience. As I’ve already indicated, Mark Berry’s notes are excellent. Perhaps a little more detail on the Andersen ‘plot’ would have been helpful but, on the other hand, the essay tells us a great deal about Zemlinsky and the background to the work.

The one elephant in the room is the short playing time. So far as I can see, every recording of Die Seejungfrau that we’ve previously reviewed on MusicWeb has had a coupling – and the Chailly version had Zemlinsky’s Psalm XIII, Op 24 as its coupling. I suppose one can argue that the price of the CD is no more – and probably a lot less than – the price of a ticket to hear the work performed live in concert. Nonetheless, a running time of just 47:30 has to be a factor for potential purchasers.

However, anyone able to overlook the short running time will acquire a fine performance of a gorgeous orchestral score.

John Quinn

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