Sunday, April 5, 2020

Capriccio Releases a Zemlinsky “Sampler”

courtesy of Naxos of America

Back when I was writing for, the Viennese Capriccio label tended to serve as my “go-to” source for recorded performances of the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky. (The “von” was added to the family name by Zemlinsky’s father, having absolutely nothing to do with noble descent!) Zemlinsky began to emerge as a major figure during the last decade of the nineteenth century, and he maintained that reputation until the rise of the Nazis. He spent his last years in the New York area, first in New York City and subsequently in Larchmont; but his European reputation did not follow him to the United States. To the extent that he was known at all, it was as teacher and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and, through her memoirs, for his unrequited love for Alma Schindler.

However, during the final quarter of the twentieth century, interest in Zemlinsky’s music began to revive. In my personal experience, that interest was piqued through the opportunity to see the performance of his Opus 16 one-act opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie,” whose libretto was a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s unfinished play A Florentine Tragedy. (After my move to the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to attended a concert performance by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by James Conlon.)

The latest Capriccio album, released this past Friday, is organized around music that Zemlinsky composed between his move to Vienna to escape the Nazis in Germany and his departure from Vienna for the United States. The album begins with his Opus 34 sinfonietta in three movements, composed in 1934. The second movement (“Ballade”) includes a reflection on an earlier composition, the song “Sie kam zum Schloss gegangen” (she came towards the castle), the last of the six settings of poems by Maurice Maeterlinck (Opus 13). The entire collection follows Opus 23, sung by soprano Petra Lang. For both of these selections, Susanna Mälkki conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. The remaining tracks are two excerpts from Zemlinsky’s final opera, his Opus 26 Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules), based on a German translation of the play Le roi Candaule by André Gide. Both are taken from the last of the three acts, the prelude and the aria “Mein Ring” (my ring), sung by baritone Siegfried Lorenz. Those excerpts, recorded in 1992, are conducted by Gerd Albrecht, who would subsequently conduct the Capriccio world premiere recording of the entire opera, released in 1997.

One of the probable reasons that Zemlinsky fell out of fashion is his preference for lush sonorities found in his instrumentation. Those qualities did not go down well with those that worshipped the austerity in the music of Anton Webern. Schoenberg, on the other hand, enjoyed Zemlinsky’s music, even if he did not always compose that way himself. From that point of view, the new Capriccio album provides excellent examples of everything that Schoenberg appreciated and everything that those worshipping at the altar of Webern shunned. In addition to Albrecht and Conlon, Zemlinsky’s champions include Mälkki, Vladimir Jurowski, and Kent Nagano. While that repertoire is probably a bit rich for a steady diet, Capriccio has provided a suitable “tasting” that should not be overlooked by those that take their listening seriously.