More Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony

Unmissable for all fans of Austro-Germanic late Romanticism

More Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony

Carrying on from Classical Explorer's posts Es war einmal ... the fairytale magic of Zemlinsky and our posts on Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (the five-performance comparison here and the Mahler/Xiaogang Ye DG couplng here), we come to the logical extension in our explorations and further celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Zemlinsky's birth: Zamlinsky's own equivalent of Mahler's Das Lied, his Op. 18 Lyrische Symphonie (Lyric Symphony), Op. 18 (1922/23). Scored for soprano, baritone and orchestra, it was written while he was music director of the New German Theatre in Prague (he moved ther ein 1911 from Vienna).  Although, because of the demands of his job, Zemlinsky composed less during thses years than at otehr times in his creative life, what he did compose was mightily significant: the operas Eine fiorentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy), Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), and this Lyric Symphony.

If Mahler is known for hos excesses, Zemlinsky takes everything a step further in his Lyric Symphony - there is a type of hyper-Romanticism here that borders on Schoenbergian Expressionism.

Here, instead of German translations of ancient Chinese texts, though, Zemlinsky chooses words by the great Rabindranath Tagore in German translations by Hans Effenberger.  Gielen conducts the "RSO ORF" or the "Sinphonie-Orchester Österreichisches Rundfunks". Quite a mouthful - basically the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra (the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony OPrchestra to give it its full title in English) in performances of ravishing beauty. We certainly hear a certain Orientalism in the harmonies of the first song, Ich bin friedlos, ich bin durstig nach fernen Dingen (I am restless. I am athirst for far-away things) held within the concentrated scoring of late-Austro-Germanic Romanticism. This is a baritone song, and Roland Hermann's voice is perfect:

In Mahler's first movement of Das Lied von der Erde, we hear the tenor strain at the top of his range; here, the baritone undergoes simlar challenges. There is a twist in mood, too: for all of the horror of Mahler's image of an ape in moonlight howling on gravestones, in Zemlinsky it is as if this sense of horror had been internalised and underlies the whole song at a very deep level. Gielen allows the Romantic, yearning gestures to make their mark just as much as the waling woodwinds.

In contrast, the second movement scampers like a Schoenbergian Scherzo in the orchestra and it is left to the superb Karan Armstrong to spin the line. Here's O Mutter, der junge Prinz ("O mother, the young Prince") in which the excitement cfeated by the visit of a young prince on a yong girl forms the thrust:

The Zemlinsky of  perfumed, gloriously heady music we know from our previous post arrives full-on in the third, baritone, movement, the beautifully-titled Du bist die Abendwolke (You are the evening cloud). This is the movement Alban Berg quoted  in his Lyric Suite for string quartet. Listen to the way Hermann delivers the opening, slinkily chormatic descent just perfectly, and how Zemlinsky creates the most miraculous contrapuntal webs in teh orchestra (some lovely horn solos along the way, too; and, also like Mahler, Zemlinsky makes fine use of solo violin):

In contrast, the fourth movement, Sprich zu mir Geliebter (Speak to me, my love), is markedly mysterious, but also more meandering. We enter properly Expressionist territory here, if not of the red-raw variety of, say, Schoenberg's Erwartung. The vocal line veers towards Sprechstimme (the "sung speech" associated with the Second Viennese School, particularly Schoenberg and Berg). This could be Marie from Berg's Wozzeck in reflective mood, almost. For pure beauty, thsi movement takes some beating:

Interruptive hardly covers the opening of the short fifth movement, Befrei mich von den Banden deiner Süße, Lieb (Release me from the bonds of your sweetness, Love), an almighty scrabble of a post-Mahlerian Urschrei after which the voice rails against snippets of a frightful march:

With the sixth song, tenderness reassserts itself, but only momentarily before the bleakness of the text registers: Vollende denn das letzte Lied (Then finish the last song). Zemlinsky's scoring becomes truly spare, daringly so:

And with the seventh and final movement (one more than Mahler in Zemlinsky!), Friede, mein Herz (Peace, my heart), a sense of transcendence Zemlinsky-style arrives. Listen to how Gielen tracks the waves of sound so brilliantly as well as to how powerfully Hermann delivers:

No texts or translations are included with this release: instead, follow this link to take you to the German texts and further links from that page to English translations.

There are a number of excellent versions of the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony out there: Varady/Fischer-Disckau and Maazel on DG, Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Orchestre de Paris on Capriccio with Christine Schäfer and Matthias Gierne, and Riccardo Chailly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Allessandra Marc/Hakan Hagegård on Decca. Out of interest, the one I got to know the piece with was an old Italia LP with Dorothy Dorow and Siegmund Nimsgern, BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gabriele Ferro. Obscure, I know. But this Gielen is a revelation - he picthes the work just right. Zemlinsky playing at its finest.

This Orfeo release is a live performance from the Musikverein in Vienna, January 27, 1989. It really is the best of what a live performance can be: that edge-of-the-seat aspect of live performance coupled with a standard of performance that is near-faultless. The Austrian orchestra is on top form. Just for interest, here's another Gielen performance (complete) from 1984 with the "SWR-Simphonieorchester" (the Symphony Orchestra of the South West German Radio) with soloists James Johnson, baritone and Vlatka Oršanić, soprano:

A version of Franz Schreker's Overtue to Die Gezeichneten, the Prelude to a Drama, is the perfect disc bedfellow. Again a live performance (Wiener Konzerthaus, August 31, 1993). Schreker called himself a "phantasmagoricist in sound" (I'm sure the German sounds a lot better). The Prelude to a Drama was premiered by the great conductor Felix Weingartner in February 1914. If ever there was a piece that celebrates beauty fo texture, this is it, and Gielen's performance is radiant; it emerges more as a symphonic poem than as an overture. More Schreker, please! (hint: there may wel be more from Classical Explorer in 2022):

; it 

This is Orfeo's fourth archival release of Gielen and the RSO ORF. It is unmissable for all fans of Austro-Germanic late Romanticism ...