ZEMLINSKY: Rustic Dances, Op. 1 / Four Fantasies, Op. 9 / A Ray of Light (Silke Avenhaus) (Naxos: 8.557331)
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Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Although the music of Alexander Zemlinsky has foundan increasingly wide public during the past quartercentury,it is not on his piano music that his reputationrests. While it features prominently in his formativeyears, Zemlinsky effectively abandoned the medium atthe turn of the twentieth century. The present disccollates all of the published music that Zemlinsky wrotefor piano after 1891, revealing a skilful and assuredfigure who gradually worked free of his influences tobecome the composer whose mark was to be made inother fields.
Zemlinsky's juvenilia includes two sonatas andnumerous genre pieces. From 1891, the LandlicheTanze (Rustic Dances) assembles its dance numbersinto a cumulative sequence - Zemlinsky 'trying out'various idioms in the process. The Straussian suavity ofthe first is followed by the Chopinesque elegance ofNo. 2. The third has a wistfulness redolent ofSchumann, and the fourth a hint of Mendelssohn, beforethe Lisztian radiance of No. 5. Brahms is to the fore inthe sixth, as is Dvořak in the seventh. The waltz-tempoof No. 8 complements the Landler-tempo of itssimilarly Schubertian successor, to be followed by thelively rhythmic profile of No. 10. The final two piecesproceed without pause, the drawing-room gallantry ofNo. 11 leading into the overt rhetoric of No. 12, whichbrings the collection to a stirring close.
Despite attracting favourable notices, Zemlinskymay have felt that this 'Op. 1' gave a misleadingimpression of the composer he aspired to be. Hepublished nothing further for six years, though the VierBalladen (Four Ballades) composed during 1892-3 anddedicated to his teacher Johann Fuchs, were originallyintended as his 'Op. 2'. Brahms's Op. 10 Ballades aredirectly though never slavishly evoked - above all, inthe first, Archibald Douglas, after a poem by TheodorFontane. From the depths of the piano it proceeds inominous accents to a tumultuous central section,regaining its initial mood at the close. The secondballad, Der Konig von Thule, is an affectionaterendering of Gretchen's song from Goethe's Faust, acentral surge of emotion only briefly disturbing theplacid over-all mood. The third ballad, DerWassermann, after a poem by Justinus Kerner, islargely humorous and good-natured, with a hint ofmalevolence to heighten tension towards its centre. Thefourth ballad, Intermezzo, apparently has a secretprogramme: the coming-together of its two main ideas,respectively impulsive and capricious, suggests anamorous encounter, with the music then tapering awayin a serene conclusion to the cycle as a whole.
A similar intimacy is embodied in the Albumblatt(Albumleaf), 'Souvenir from Vienna', written in 1895and dedicated to his pupil Catharina Maleschewski.
Marked 'Very slow and inward', with allusions toWagner and Tchaikovsky, the piece inhabits a wideremotional range than its title implies, and, in its subtlyevolving form and modulatory freedom, suggests thatZemlinsky was already familiar with the sets of pianopieces that Brahms had published earlier in the decade.
Equally attractive is the Skizze (Sketch) of 1896,revised from an unpublished set of four pieces writtenfive years earlier. Its capering initial idea is contrastedwith a more ruminative theme that pointedly intervenes,only for the opening idea to have the final say.
In 1898 Zemlinsky composed his most imposingpiano work, the Vier Fantasien (Four Fantasies), afterpoems by Richard Dehmel. Each of these miniaturetone-poems encapsulates, but does not portraygraphically, verse by the most prominent of VienneseSecessionist poets. The first fantasy, Stimme desAbends, has a gently brooding quality, reaching thebriefest of climaxes before regaining its repose. Thesecond fantasy, Waldseligkeit, contrasts its capriciousopening idea with a hymn-like rejoinder, building inintensity and developing its themes right through to theclose. The third fantasy, Liebe, is of a rapt expressionsuch as inspires some telling exchanges between leftand right hands. The fourth fantasy, Kaferlied, is theshortest and lightest, its insouciant gait rounding off theset in humorous elegance.
The instrumental rendering of Dehmel's poetry wastaken to far more ambitious lengths by ArnoldSchoenberg, Zemlinsky's contemporary and laterbrother-in-law, in his Verklarte Nacht the followingyear. In 1901 both composers contributed to the?£berbrettl, the writer and entrepreneur Ernst vonWolzogen's attempt at establishing a populist cabaret inBerlin. Schoenberg wrote the songs now known asBrettl-lieder, and Zemlinsky composed music for amime drama with piano accompaniment entitled EinLichtstrahl (A Ray of Light). The scenario, devised byplaywright and actor Oskar Geller and typicalmelodrama-cum-farce of its period, concerns theencounters, both amorous and otherwise, of 'He', 'She'and 'The Other'; their menage ?á trois being conductedin a room with a large wardrobe during the earlyevening.
The music opens in relaxed, unassuming mood,though a more agitated manner soon asserts itself andprovokes some angry gestures, the initial music thencontinuing in more elaborate textures. A waspishrepeated-note motif initiates a more humorous episodeallowing the opportunity for illustrative exaggeration onthe part of the pianist (and no doubt the mime-artists).
Next comes the false gracefulness of a 'song withoutwords', with its equally charming trio. Theconfrontational mood is alluded to, only for the gracefulmusic to resume its unruffled course. Next, thehumorous episode is recalled, and the two musicsalternate before a decisive new theme, derived from theopening idea, steers towards a final return of thegraceful music, before concluding proceedings with avigorous and unashamedly theatrical flourish.
Ein Lichtstrahl was not performed at the ?£berbrettl,perhaps because of perceived sexual ambiguities, or onaccount of the difficulty of its piano writing. Zemlinskymade a shortened version for Franz Artzt's Cabaret duQuartier Latin in Dresden, but again no performancewas forthcoming, and the piece was to languish unhearduntil 1992. Its combining of direct illustration with asubtly developing variation form has no parallelselsewhere in the composer's output, and its manyfelicities are best savoured, as here, in his original fulllengthversion.
A similar ignominy was accorded the three-actballet Der Triumph der Zeit (The Triumph of Time), onwhich Zemlinsky worked during 1901. The diffuseSymbolist scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal arousedlittle enthusiasm from Gustav Mahler, effectivelykilling off the project. The composer salvaged twoorchestral works and, from the first act, Das glaserneHerz (The Crystal Heart), this brief Minuet, publishedin 1903. Its whimsical charm, tailor-made for theamateur market, makes an unconsciously low-keyending to Zemlinsky's output for piano.Richard Whitehouse