Three Ballet Pieces
Poor Zemlinsky! His life seemed to be full of frustrations;
ever the perfectionist, he toiled on and off for some eleven years on
a ballet, based on a Hofmannsthal scenario, Der Triumph der Zeit
("The Triumph of Time"). Zemlinsky began work on his ballet early in
1901 but by the end of that year he had rejected Hofmannsthal's projected
third act and learned that Mahler, then the director of the Court Opera
refused to stage the ballet there. To add insult to injury, Zemlinsky's
fiancé, Alma Schindler, decided to marry Mahler instead of himself!
This personal crisis brought work on the ballet to a standstill but
the Three Ballettstücke were premiered in Vienna in February
1903 giving Zemlinsky the incentive to resume work and a second act
was published, under the title Ein Tanzpoem ("A Dance Poem")
in 1904. He also made an attempt at a third act in 1912.
This suite, Three Ballet Pieces, opens with
a musical depiction of the passage of time followed by two 'dances of
the hours' from Act II of the ballet (Reigen and Presto)
framing Fauntanz which was in fact the only Act II piece he completely
orchestrated. The dance of the 'joyful happy hours' and the final dance
of the 'hours' and 'moments' are enacted in an idyllic green meadow
on the slopes of Mount Parnassus while the central movement, 'dance
of the fauns', is set in a laurel grove by the sea at dawn. Zemlinsky's
music is utterly charming. The first movement, 'without indication'
opens quietly and slowly on lower strings to give an impression of time
moving slowly but remorselessly forward. Soon the atmosphere and the
music lightens as the dance on Mount Parnasus gracefully proceeds. The
delicate but luscious scoring leaves no doubt about the influence Zemlinsky
had on his pupil Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The joy of this dance is clouded
just sufficiently to remind us that time eclipses all revelry. The odd
bass rumblings might suggest some intruding bacchanalian revelries.
The central movement is very beautiful; these fauns are clearly very
playful and probably sly and mischievous. Zemlinsky creates quicksilver
music for them with some very interesting rapid string effects that
add a sheen over the texture. Alternating with the fauns high spirits,
are passages that suggest a sultry early morning. This is impressionistic
music but curiously it frequently sounds more Italian than French. The
last movement is a headlong dance of abandoned joy with very much a
sense of childish innocence. This is a very appealing sixteen-minute
work which Rickenbacher interprets with refinement, delicacy and wit.
Three Psalms 83; 23, Op. 14; and 13
Zemlinsky's settings of these psalms are most impressive.
They occupy the major part of this album (some 37 minutes). They all
seem to have been composed when various crises in the composer's life
threatened to overwhelm him. All the texts dwell on the sense of abandonment
felt by the believer in the face of his foes but all finally take comfort
in the praise of God. Zemlinsky's father died in June 1900 and Zemlinsky
immediately composed a setting of the 83rd Psalm for mixed choir and
orchestra. Oddly enough the composer never seemed to push its publication;
indeed it was not performed until 1987, many years after his death (in
1942.) Ten years later, however, in 1910, Zemlinsky returned to the
idea of setting psalms and composed his 23rd Psalm for mixed choir and
orchestra premiered by Franz Schreker later that year. His setting of
this psalm which, like the 83rd, is a cry to God for protection from
danger, had some irony for his career had suffered set-backs following
the Mahler's resignation from the Vienna Court Opera and the planned
premiere of Zemlinsky's opera Der Traumgörge, there,
was cancelled. The setting of the 13th Psalm dates from 1935 two years
after he had been driven from Berlin by the National Socialists. The
psalmist's questions "How long shall I seek counsel...and be so vexed
in my heart?" certainly had personal relevance for him then.
In each of the settings a similar pattern is noticeable:
three equal parts differentiated from each other by tempo, time signature
and key but linked by thematic motifs.
Zemlinsky's Psalm 83 is magnificent - what a pity
the world had to wait so long to hear it. It is finely constructed and
wonderfully orchestrated.. Beginning gravely in lower strings and quickly
developing into a tremolando of dread, the orchestra breathes despair
until a fanfare introduces hope. Hope and despair alternate until the
glorious climactic fugue with the multi-part voices arching triumphantly
over the orchestral peroration. Here the music begins in the classical
choral tradition of Bach but reaches a weighty grandiloquence one associates
with the turn-of-the-century English choral tradition. The work is dramatic,
deeply felt, accessible and melodious. Rickenbacher's forces deliver
a moving and thrilling performance.
The setting of Psalm 23 impresses greatly too in the
serenity of its opening pages. Beginning quietly with a hint of trepidation,
we are "led by still waters" and a pastoral paradise with harp and celesta
prominent and soothing women's chorus. This is imaginative writing of
a high order. As the music moves into more of a mood of despair, Zemlinsky's
inspiration falters somewhat, however; until the music has processed
out of the shadows and back to the state of ecstasy with which the movement
Psalm 13 is the darkest of the three. The beast (typified
by sneering bassoons) is closer, despair deeper and cries for the Saviour,
the most desperate. The middle section is a lengthy blizzard of an orchestral
interlude which explores a very bleak landscape. The third section,
a closing apotheosis is the most powerful climax of the three Psalms.
It struggles upwards towards the light passing through some sensuous,
almost voluptuous passages (a warning against the sins of the flesh?)
Until it reaches its jubilant conclusion but even here one senses that
Zemlinsky is suggesting vigilance for the beast is ever present in the
shadows. Rickenbacher delivers an unfaltering, blistering performance.
The booklet notes are interesting and informative
but need careful reading for the English translation is sometimes rather
This is an adventurous programme which I thoroughly
enjoyed and will feature prominently in my list of the best recordings
I have heard this year.