Dip Your Ears... ( 56 ) 

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Symphonies Nos.1 & 2, Conlon

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A. Zemlinsky, Complete Choral Works & Orchestral Songs, Conlon / Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt, Albert, Schmidt, Volle

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A. Zemlinsky, The Mermaid, et al., Conlon

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A. Zemlinksy, The Mermaid, et al., Dausgaard
Alexander Zemlinsky is one of the many semi-famous composers I adore; part of a group to which belong several early to late Romantic composers of distinctly second – sometimes third – rank, namely Messrs. Ries, Raff, Onslow, Jadin, Rott, Wellesz, Wilms, Saygun, Schreker, Pfitzner, von Schilling, Rezniek, Schoeck, Szymanowski. They span a stylistic period that ranges from post-Mozartian/early Beethoven to the onset of Modernism (the break is audible between Wellesz’s fourth and fifth symphony). Among these, I have clear favorites. Pfitzner, Ries, and – Zemlinsky. So it is with particular pleasure that I see EMI regurgitate its Zemlinsky recordings at budget price. So far, three recordings that James Conlon made with the Cologne Orchestra have been reissued – the choral works and orchestral songs lumped together on one “GEMINI” twofer and the symphonies nos. 1 & 2 on the budget label EMI ‘Encore’.

Missing from the reissues is still Zemlinsky’s most famous and arguably best orchestral work, the tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) and the beautiful Lyric Symphony. That recording was my first exposure to Zemlinsky and the beginning of a lasting love – but truth be told, Conlon has very strong competition here, in particular from the excellent Thomas Dausgaard and, in SACD sound, Antony Beaumont (both on Chandos). Where Conlon, to the best of my knowledge, has no competition (Chailly, the other notable Zemlinsky proponent, has recorded a few psalms spread out on various discs... and even so, it is difficult to imagine these works done any better) are those works that combine orchestra and voice. And these works are stunningly beautiful, too. Running the gamut from Mahler (who conducted Zemlinsky's first opera and whose later wife, Alma, he almost snagged) to early Schoenberg (whose counterpoint teacher he was briefly and who married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde) and – in the orchestral songs – Richard Strauss, this is a high point of late Romantic, chromatic writing for big forces. Unlike Mahler, Zemlinsky is not so concerned with creating a bigger canvas in this post-Tristan-chord world; instead, he goes for squeezing the music a little harder, still, for its last drops of tonality. He does this without ever losing sight of a lush musical language, easily enjoyed and understood by anyone who can take Wagner or late Strauss. In the orchestral songs, one could be excused for thinking of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The symphonies are a different kettle of fish. Here he can write a slow movement that has a melodic sweetness we find in Grieg, only to move on to pre-Mahlerian, perhaps Sinding-like (another more or less obscure composer I love) structures. Great works? Unlike the choral works, which probably are (singers like Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt help!), the symphonies won't make a lasting claim to greatness, per se. But eminently, thoroughly enjoyable they are - which is more than you can say about much else - and at such a bargain price, who could resist?

(Alex von Zemlinsky's consequent personal story was a less than happy affair, at least its end. His father converted to Judaism to marry Zemlinsky's Jewish mother, and Alex was raised in the Viennese Sephardic community. In 1899, he converted to Protestantism -- like Schoenberg, or Mahler [in Mahler's case it was Catholicism]. After the Anschluss Zemlinsky fled to Manhattan via Prague, where he arrived on December 23rd. Less than four years later he died in the U.S. in the company of his wife but generally isolated, jobless, unproductive, ill.)

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