Eschenbach conducts Schumann and Zemlinsky with the San Francisco Symphony—and an Appreciation of Zemlinsky

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Alexander von Zemlinsky

Alexander von Zemlinsky

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Christine Schafer, Soprano
James Johnson, Bass-Baritone

Schumann, Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Opus 120 (1841)
Zemlinsky, “Lyric” Symphony, Opus 18 (1924)

The San Francisco Symphony gave two performances last Saturday night–one it may have been unhappy with–and one it may have been unhappy about.

This somewhat unusual state of affairs began with an annoucement from the stage that the concert was being delayed. I had wondered at the half empty hall, something you don’t normally see in San Francisco. Dysfunction on the Golden Gate Bridge, as it turned out. A number of players were stuck and much of the audience was still in transit. Some twenty minutes later, after a number of stragglers had appeared, there was a rustle onstage, and the tall figure of Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman was received to her empty chair with considerable ribbing and fanfare. Stagehands quickly “disappeared” a chair or two at the perifery of the violins, and Maestro Eschenbach was welcomed to what would still be considered a large orchestra for Schumann. Half the audience clearly had not been so persistent in arriving.

I’ve been familiar with Christoph Eschenbach’s performances of the Schumann Symphonies over the years, and he can usually be relied upon to bring something new to the table with this composer. He used to conduct Schumann’s first “go” at the fanfare climax of the “Spring” Symphony, with its startling Parsifal-like outline, and he can do some unusual things with trumpets and timpani in the Second Symphony. But I had the unfortunate impression on Saturday that he simply wasn’t finding very much to illuminate in the Fourth. This symphony is filled with tempting detail, but it does not respond well to eccentricity in the shaping of it. And it must blaze.

As already suggested, this was big orchestra Schumann, though I am not entirely sure the original orchestration was used, with all its rich doublings. That said, I felt Maestro Eschenbach was extremely reluctant to dig in and treat the symphony like a big piece. Twenty years ago, this ensemble gave a performance with Hermann Michael that lifted you out of your chair with the sheer weight of sonority. In a recent American tour, Daniel Barenboim’s Berlin Staatskapelle incandescently did the same. Christoph Eschenbach gave us Schumann lite.

The orchestra may or may not have resisted this approach, The performance was well played but changeable, seemingly for no reason. The symphony’s opening Allegro began slowly, sounding frankly dull and stuck in the wrong gear, but the exposition repeat eventually rode in faster to the rescue. In the finale, the pattern was similar. After a slow start, a swifter repeat and some momentum from that point forward.

The slow tempi, huge pauses between phrases and emphatic but curiously weightless cadences, without much asked of brass or timpani, bespoke the contradictions of the performance. There were some beautifully rapt ritardandi in the slow movement, and a finely mysterious introduction led us into the finale, but these individual moments could not make up for the lack of punch in the outer movements and in the scherzo. Schumann may not be Berlioz, but there are forceful brass and percussion thrills to be found in this symphony. They were scarcely attempted.  And most importantly, Schumann is propelled by his dazzling syncopations. If you mumble your way through them, all is lost.

When the orchestra reconvened, following intermission, the stage was overflowing with performers for Zemlinsky’s “Lyric” Symphony. Beyond the footlights, the hall was mostly empty. However, the approximately 800 listeners who remained would experience as vivid and beautiful a reading of this insufficiently known work as could possibly be wished for. And any doubts about the commitment of the musicians to Maestro Eschenbach would evaporate with its first portentous chords. The second half of the evening would beguile with beauty. From the outset, though, I felt special empathy for Christine Schafer and James Johnson, projecting gamely into a house so underfilled, that their voices resonated with an echo.

It does well to recall that Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” was written just after the First World War, at the trailing edge of a long European fascination with things far eastern and exotic. Indeed, its text by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore reflects this and might seem a bit Hallmark card-ish to today’s literati, but its honestly expressed emotions and sonorous German translation make real music possible. The seven poems chosen outline, in a very human way, the trajectory of a love affair, from longing through passion, to indifference and nostalgia. I think many listeners will walk home from this music feeling deeply reflective about something in their own lives. A bit of Frauenlieben und Leben inhabits the emotional tone of the work. You might say it is an introverted personal statement, but grandly, almost operatically expressed.

Indeed, there is a cinematic, Crown of India bombast to the opening of Zemlinsky’s “Lyric” Symphony, which then culminates in what you might term a chord of mysterious expectation. Frank Bridge voices a similar chord at the beginning of his orchestral triptych, The Sea, written at about this time, and I was even reminded of Max Steiner’s title music to The Fountainhead, which came much later. Once this somewhat theatrical scene is laid, however, Zemlinsky leaves Cecil B. DeMille behind and manages to compose forty-five minutes of the most voluptuous, original, seductive, tasteful, exciting, memorable and hard to remember music ever written. That string of adjectives is meant to be paradoxical. Let me explain.

Music lovers who fall in love with the “Lyric” Symphony will notice, that while every single moment of the work fascinates and nothing bores, it is almost impossible to recall accurately, even though the harmonic language of the music is entirely euphonious. This may be a disadvantage in attracting large numbers of new listeners. You don’t come away from the hall with new big tunes, the way people did the first time they heard the music of Kallinnikov. But you don’t get tired of Zemlinsky’s music, either. It is neither too obvious nor nondescript. Indeed, in some respects there is more happening in his music than in that of either Strauss or Mahler.

Many people suppose they know what late romantic music sounds like, but the notion is often too generic to be that useful. Notions of big colors, rich string tone, long melodies and high drama suggest Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, or Korngold. But these composers ultimately differ more than they resemble each other. So it is with Zemlinsky. There are moments when you think it could be Mahler or Strauss, but then you realize something entirely original is going on. The symphony ends on a chord, for instance, that could have been written by Frederick Delius.

Mahler’s music is frequently big and shrieky, but spare, with many edgy fleshless chords, and his symphonies constantly change texture and direction. Strauss’ sound world is deeply and plushly carpeted.  Zemlinsky’s textures also are rich throughout, (with a touch of primal Czech woodsiness taken from Janacek), but when you look down, you realize the floor is not carpeted at all, but a transparent and beautifully illuminated aquarium glowing with color and kaleidoscopic movement. Indeed, that’s the key to Zemlinsky: in the lower reaches of the orchestra something is always burbling, quivering, sliding, tapping, moving or surging, as in the ocean itself. And if there is a “signature” to his style, it would be the glissando. Orchestrate a piece for wooden block, and Zemlinsky will figure out how to make it slide. The fourth and last of Strauss’ Four Last Songs winds up with a paraphrase of Zemlinsky’s ending for the “Lyric” Symphony, an interesting tribute of respect in itself, and it includes a similar glissando.

Another feature of Zemlinsky’s music is its quality of offsetting modernistic harmonies with other less disturbing effects occurring simultaneously. For example, you might have the brass snarling away through their mutes as though Alban Berg were in charge of the moment, but suddenly you realize a syncopated brass line straight out of Delius is marching diagonally through the Bergian harmonies and quite effectively competing for attention in the total picture.

Following this music is very much like swimming confidently in a sometimes stormy but warm sea. It is no accident, I feel, that his other great symphonic work is entitled The Little Mermaid (Die Seejungfrau). There is a constant wave-like rise and fall to Zemlinsky’s music–I demonstrated this to myself unexpectedly. Played backwards slowly on a CD player, a good bit of the “Lyric” Symphony sounds almost the same as forwards! Zemlinsky’s short themes often come to rest euphoniously where they begin, yet I have never heard music that modulates so lengthily and inventively, which is perhaps why it is difficult to As you follow these sequences, you are constantly delighted by seductive cadences and resolutions at unexpected points. How this composer manages to ravish the listener with so much perfect chordal docking, and without a trace of overripe vulgarity, becomes the essence question of his talent. There is not one moment of boredom or sense of repetition. Nothing mimimalist. This is not Gorecki! And it isn’t Cesar Franck, huffing and puffing his way to modulations you already see coming. Instead, you are Captain Nemo for an hour, and you might never want the ride to end.

Arnold Schoenberg admired Zemlinsky for his sheer theatrical skill and predicted ultimate success. He may have been prescient. Keeping things moving is always difficult in vocal works, and while it may be heretical to suggest so, there is a good bit of tedium in parts of Mahler and Wagner. In fact, falling silent and static is a problem for all of music. Zemlinsky appears to realize that there actually is no such a thing as silence. In the human body, something is always pumping quietly, surging, sparking electrically, fidgeting, moving or getting ready to move. Zemlinsky’s music is like that. At its best, as in the “Lyric” Symphony, there are no dead spots. That speaks volumes. And now he starts to be known.

Judging by Christine Schäfer’s beautifully girlish and sincere singing, and James Johnson’s quietly heartfelt voicings of passion and regret, the performers must feel every bit of this admiration. I’m familiar with James Johnson’s moving rendition from his CD with Michael Gielen. Christoph Eschenbach called forth similar feelings, but his tempi allowed for just a little more room to expand at the big moments. This was all to the good. Unlike in the Schumann Symphony, you felt Maestro Eschenbach’s pacing here was utterly natural and right. The San Francisco Symphony could not have played more vividly or more accurately, and the limitless depths of Davies Hall’s bass sonority, allied to its immediacy, provided a sonic experience of the highest order. If more composers knew how to separate sensuality from creepiness or Kitsch, the world would be a better place!

The Zemlinsky “Lyric” Symphony ends raptly and quietly. In a full auditorium, this can be a magic moment, and in the auditory sense, it was. Maestro Eschenbach stood for thirty seconds after the last chord, a sculptural figure in black, arms raised in silent tribute. But 800 people cannot hold their breath in a room made for 3000, and as Eschenbach slowly lowered his hands, far too many members of the audience were already heading for the doors. It remained for a few hundred of us, scarcely more than the assembled company onstage, to express gratitude for the privilege of hearing this great work, and the fervent hope, as always in music, that beauty will continue to triumph.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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