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Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Piano Music

Ländliche Tänze Op.1 (1891) [14.49]
Albumblatt (1895) [2.46]
Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel Op.9 (1898) [10.49]
Vier Balladen (1892-93) [13.44]
Menuett from Das gläserne Herz (1901 published 1903) [1.10]
Skizze (1896) [2.32]
Ein Lichtstrahl – original version (1901) [17.35]
Silke Avenhaus (piano)
Recorded at the Rathausprunksaal, Landshut, July 2003
NAXOS 8.557331 [63.26]

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I suspect that much of Zemlinsky’s piano music will be unfamiliar even to the more assiduous cultivators of the fin de siècle Viennese muse. It’s hard to think that anyone hearing his Op.1 Ländliche Tänze would possibly guess its composer from the enjoyable, through impossibly derivative, hints of mid-century worthies of the pantheon. This was his first piece accorded an opus number and dates from 1891. The results are certainly pianistic but the obvious echoes of Chopin in the second and of Schumann in the third show Zemlinsky trying on cloaks rather than cutting some of his own cloth. The salon certainly called in these early works, though there’s lyric ease in the fifth dance, a big, bold Brahmsian nudge in the sixth and some attractive metrical games in the tenth.

That he could spin an affecting melodic line should come as no surprise of course. He does it with the simplest of means in the Schumannesquely entitled Albumblatt but one should really turn to a much more engaging work, his Op.9 Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel for evidence of bigger, more prescient things. This is a four-movement work enshrining Dehmel’s poems - and they’re little poetic gems. The second alternates the gravity of a simple chordal chorale with more lyrically engaging material. The last of the four has a brisk lightness after the headier intensity of the third. I appreciate it might have necessitated another booklet page but Zemlinsky’s writing certainly intrigued me enough to want to read Dehmel’s poems. Dating from 1892-3 the Ballads are appropriately tensile and apt to burst into Romantic life with a flourish. Certainly there’s a strong Brahmsian lineage but there’s enough Zemlinsky to keep the attention firmly focused as well.

Ein Lichtstrahl was a mime drama with piano accompaniment for which Zemlinsky wrote the music in 1901 though there was in the end no performance. The piece itself lay unperformed for many years, for most of the century in fact, and whilst it’s no masterpiece it’s a well-crafted, rather roguish and melodramatic piece of romantic writing – variational, light, somewhat derivative but seemingly well suited to its original function.

Silke Avenhaus never does too much with these pieces, never tries to over-inflate the rhetoric, instead allowing them to find their own level. She seems to have enjoyed the more roguish elements of Ein Lichtstrahl but her playing of the Fantasien is especially noteworthy – and fortunately she’s been accorded a good acoustic in which to display her sensitive musicianship.

Jonathan Woolf

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