≈ ZEMLINSKY The Mermaid ● Marc Albrecht, conductor; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra ● PENTATONE PTC5186740 (Streaming audio: 47:30) Live: Concertgebouw 11/10-12/2018.
It gladdens my heart to confirm that Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid is no longer a “rescue” known only to early twentieth century enthusiasts panning for neglected musical gold. It’s too good for a fate like that. There are 11 modern versions of this work now on Naxos’s streaming site, not to mention live performances on YouTube, most of them, like this one, quite fine. The piece has arrived. It’s a fitting outcome for music which premiered in 1905 on the same program as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and was actually preferred by the audience.
A mystery remains as to exactly why Zemlinsky withdrew the work after three performances, even more so why he deconstructed the manuscript, retaining the last two movements and giving the first to Marie Pappenheim. Pappenheim was one of those larger than life turn-of-the-century female figures, a whirling dervish of a dermatologist cum sexual liberationist who wound up writing the oddball stream of consciousness libretto for Schoenberg’s Erwartung. It was not until the 1980s that scholars realized the three movements actually belonged together.
Zemlinsky is one of music’s successful eclectics, like Florent Schmitt in France. There is nothing revolutionary about him. You don’t sense in this music a need to break away, to become something completely different the way you do with Schoenberg. It doesn’t radiate unpleasantness. Instead, you realize that Zemlinsky is contentedly on top of all the new harmonic trends of his day, has no axes to grind, and is happy to woo and delight an audience with all the harmonic novelty and orchestrational possibilities of his era–packaged for pleasure and tied with a bow. His major novelty, I would say, is the big orchestral glissando, which he uses to magical effect. Debussy’s La Mer stays on the surface of a cold sea. Zemlinsky’s mermaid slips and slides underwater, wriggles and luxuriates in the balmiest of oceans.
I cannot stress enough how seductively warm and beautiful this music is, or how imaginative. Like the ocean, itself, it’s ever-changing, but a single entity. The last two movements in particular feature memorable nostalgic melodies, somewhere between Brahms and Tristan in character. But the high strings also evoke stillness like lonely Sibelius. Horses gallop underwater. Streams of bubbles burble up your nose on the celesta. Indeed, the kaleidoscopic effect of Zemlinsky’s orchestration seems limited only by our ability to imagine, and his blend of elements as fascinating as the sea itself. This is romantic music’s glass bottom boat, plying the waters long before the day of Doris Day.
Marc Albrecht floats it beautifully with his supple Netherlands Philharmonic. This is a wonderful live performance in fine Concertgebouw sound. Albrecht goes from strength to strength as a recording artist. He’s an exciting, natural conductor without phrasing eccentricities. I have loved every minute of his Brahms Piano Quartet, Strauss Ein Heldenleben and Mahler Fourth releases with these forces. Now I happily celebrate his take on Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer finally getting his due.
≈ SCHOENBERG Pelleas and Melisande. Erwartung¹ ● Edward Gardner, conductor; ¹Sara Jakubiak (sop); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra ● CHANDOS 5198 (Streaming audio: 67:36🕮)
If Edward Gardner has a special talent, it’s surely his ability to make unpleasant music sound less unpleasant than we expect. Gardner is an energetic conductor who almost always favors smooth, moderately fast tempos. He doesn’t accelerate things from a sense of stiffness or clipped literalism, like a Boulez or a Toscanini. He’s not a cold fish in climaxes. He never sounds brisk, but he’s not prone to slowness or extreme rubato. He is, you might say, an efficient romantic. He doesn’t want to bore you with an outsized point of view. I’m not always certain how I feel about that. Gardner’s choice of phrasing gives notes their full value to round out flexibly a rhythmic paragraph, but he does present the music serenely. As a result, usually missing from a Gardner performance are darkness and its companion quality, neurosis.
It’s hard to imagine Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande played without either of those qualities, but Gardner conducts as if the music were fundamentally lyrical, like Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid (with which it shared billing and negative comparison at the 1905 premiere). Schoenberg, to be sure, had a complicated personal love life, filled with bitterness and betrayal, and the negativity of Maeterlinck’s play would seem to suit the general crabbiness of his music. Most performances of this tone poem revel in its grimness, dark symbolic forest fear, and near hysteria. Sir John Barbirolli’s EMI LP from the late 1960s, for instance, manages to be impossibly impassioned and profoundly bleak at the same time.
Much of Schoenberg’s music here consists of romantic melody cut short and finished off with something dissonant and impatient. It’s the beginning of Schoenberg’s musical attempts to capture stream of conscious thinking. Pelleas stops and starts in many places, giving plenty of room for a conductor to characterize the gritty emotions it reveals. Gardner takes an unexpectedly audience-friendly tack, though, treating it as a sonic showpiece. The music goes by gleamingly and quickly, a rich kaleidoscope of sounds pleasant in their own right. I was tempted at first to find this shallow, but I’ve come to repeated listenings like a magnet, it seems. Almost against my will I’ve voted with my touchpad. Gardner’s performance is too beautiful to ignore, even if it doesn’t always sound ready to accompany Friday the Thirteenth. The Bergen Philharmonic plays richly, and the sound is fully up to Chandos’s high standard.
Similarly, I have nothing but appreciation for soprano Sara Jakubiak in Erwartung, which represents the next step in Schoenberg’s structural divorce from traditional melody. The composer explains his monodrama best: In Erwartung, the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour. Schoenberg does this by taking the listener into a soprano’s forest dream and reporting her fleeting thoughts and fears, her non-sequiturs and dreams-within-a-dream. Schoenberg effectively captures the lightning changeableness of human thinking the way Joyce did in Ulysses. Sara Jakubiak is persuasively animated in this otherworldly shadowland. You believe it is her dream. The libretto was written by a sexually liberated psychiatry student named Marie Pappenheim, who ultimately studied with Freud. It has the ring of truth. It holds your attention. But you’re not sure, just the same, that you would want to know the protagonist! Even Edward Gardner cannot make Erwartung warm and fuzzy.
≈ EINEM Symphonische Szenen. Tanz-Rondo. Wiener Symphonie ● Nikos Athinäos, conductor; Frankfurt Philharmonic Orchestra ● PAN CLASSICS 19048 (Streaming audio: 71:24)
Gottfried von Einem (1918-96) was one of those composers lucky enough to become a national institution. Like Benjamin Britten in England, whose Peter Grimes rescued British opera in one fell swoop, Einem burst into similar prominence in Austria in 1947 with Danton’s Death, an international success which assured his career. In a small, title-conscious country, where the intendant of the Vienna State Opera is actually a cabinet member and even doctors’ wives receive a special form of address, it did not hurt that Einem was well-connected to begin with. Officially son of a diplomat in Switzerland but actually the love-child of a Hungarian count, Einem moved in influential circles from the start, friendly with the Wagner family and marrying a Bismarck princess in 1946. Danton’s Death, an examination of Robespierre and the dangers of government-enforced virtue, came along at just the right moment to strike a chord in a country which feared turning Communist.
Einem first came to public attention with his ballet, Princess Turandot, in 1943. He was lucky enough to be youthful and uninfluential during the Third Reich and managed to keep his head down from politics, (though the Gestapo interrogated him about helping Jewish musicians, for which Israel would ultimately award him its highest medal). Herbert von Karajan took notice of the young composer and commissioned Einem’s Concerto for Orchestra the following year. This set the tone for his future career. In the decades which followed, a string of similar commissioned orchestral works would accompany Einem’s fame in Austria, in the same way they would for Aaron Copland after Appalachian Spring in America.
When composers become national symbols in this manner, their prominence solves the orchestra managers’ dilemma of “which new pieces we should perform.” It’s an easy out to commission something from a famous icon. But as audiences tend to notice, honoring a composer’s reputation is not the same thing as falling in love with a new piece. The music composed by Copland and Britten in later years is generally not loved as much as their earlier works.
I mention this because, try as I may to become involved in the three later pieces performed here, which are quite listenable in a sort of romantic/expressionistic way and were composed in 1956, 1959, and 1976, respectively, I do not find them to be as interesting as his Concerto for Orchestra. Unusual for an Austrian composer of the era, Einem’s music remains more or less tonal in a Stravinskian way, but without so much as a hint of Richard Strauss. (A side note in Einem’s career was his odd attempt to discourage performances of Strauss’s music as “old music.”)
Symphonische Szenen is a three-movement work which meanders pleasantly, almost like Elgar lite in places. Its brass and woodwind riffs, avoiding all the typical Straussian chords and sequences, seem to come from Joachim Raff. It wouldn’t have shocked anyone.
Tanz-Rondo is just that, clearly a dance and clearly a rondo, which noodles along like something from a movie score, with occasional interjection from clipped Stravinskian brass chords. It features a graceful central melody.
The Vienna Symphony is a bit later and more aggressive, but nothing Einem writes is harder to take in than Lutosławski or Walter Piston or Casella in a neoclassic vein. I cannot detect anything in it which sounds particularly Viennese, except for a sort of serendipity.
If I seem to have an ambivalent reaction to this music, it’s because I do. It manages to sound modern, but without any of the disturbing darkness we come to associate with modernity. It doesn’t seem to be about anything. Einem’s melodies are neither nostalgic nor amorous. Its perkiness seems to belong to cinematic bustle, without banality, but meaning what? It’s emotional tone is expressionistic, but without intensity or passion. Almost to a fault, this is “contemporary music” designed to be inoffensive. It mutters along. You applaud. You forget.
The performances here are quite fine and Pan Classics’s recorded sound a pleasant window on the orchestra. Everything here first appeared in 1995 on Signum, but this release for Pan marks the program’s first time as a stream.
≈ ROTT Hamlet Overture. Suite in E-Major. Julius Caesar Prelude. Orchestral Prelude in E-Major. Suite in B-Flat Major (excerpts). Pastoral Prelude in F-Major ● Christopher Ward, conductor; Gürzenich Orchestra Köln ● CAPRICCIO 5408 (Streaming audio: 51:44)
Hans Rott is clearly on a roll. That’s ironic to say about a paranoid composer who died at 25 from tuberculosis in an insane asylum, but the 1884 Symphony in E-Major Rott left behind, ignored entirely until 1989, is now recognized for its influence on Mahler and beginning to be performed widely. One only has to troll YouTube to appreciate the growing popularity of the music. This release is titled Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 and amounts to a musical back story for our curiosity. (Capriccio’s Vol. 2, with the symphony featured, is already waiting in the can and up for distribution next).
Rott’s original leap to fame when the symphony was rediscovered revolved around the notion that his music foreshadowed Mahler. Indeed, one suspects Mahler cribbed a bit of this and that along the way, and these early works confirm a superficial aesthetic similarity to Mahler in the dramatic brass writing and long ominous timpani rolls, like those in the Mahler First Symphony. For all the daring qualities in both composers, though, there is a powerful difference between the two in psychology. You don’t have to listen to a lot of Mahler’s music before you realize much of it is sardonic and carping. It thrives on catastrophe. Encounter happiness and sweetness in Mahler and you need only wonder how soon he will have life mock it in some way. Rott is coming from a different place, from the earnestness and purity of Bach chorales, prayerful and ardent more than tragic. Where he sounds like Wagner, it comes out more like Die Meistersinger than the gloom of Tristan or Parsifal. In Rott’s music, beauty seems simple and lasting. With Mahler you have less confidence in that. Despite his mental illness, Rott exhibits the more commonplace affect. Had he lived, he might have turned into a German version of Stenhammar, d’Indy, or Elgar. His fugues would have given Reger a run for the money. One doubts very much he would have followed Mahler into the anxious, crabby dissatisfactions of Schoenberg.
The pieces performed here are necessarily a mixed bag, by-products of various academic submissions and experiments. Rott’s Hamlet Overture was reconstructed from sketches. Both suites are incomplete, and it isn’t certain, either, whether Hamlet or the Julius Caesar preludes were intended for an opera or as incidental music. All the music flows beautifully, though, with a melodic gift more memorable than not, and one can hear in the fugal windup of the Pastoral Prelude, with ten final chords for drums and cymbals (yes, I counted!), a dry run for some of the grand and dramatically orchestrated climaxes Rott would incorporate into his E-Major symphony.
Enjoyable as it is, this release is for detectives, and I look forward ultimately to a performance of the fully mature symphony from the same forces. Christopher Ward has a warm manner, and the Gürzenich Orchestra plays with dedication, beautifully recorded. Although some of Rott’s orchestral effects suggest Mahler, particularly the Scherzo from the Suite in B-Flat, the only (almost) pilfered theme occurs in the first movement of the Suite in E-Major, gently used here, but which Mahler puts to martial purpose as the striding theme at the conclusion of his First Symphony. For those with a love/hate relationship when it comes to Mahler, this release will help determine whether you prefer music that drives you nuts–or the composer who actually went nuts.
≈ MESSIAEN Turangalîla-Symphonie ● Alexander Soddy, conductor; Tamara Stefanovich (pn); Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot); Mannheim Theater Orchestra ● OEHMS CLASSICS 472 (Streaming audio: 78:18) Live: Mannheim 11/11-12/2019.
Anyone unfamiliar with Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie might be forgiven for thinking he blundered onto the set of This Island Earth, a 1955 science fiction movie featuring Machiavellian white-haired visitors with evangelical hairdos from another planet who communicate on a warbling device called an “interociter.” Turangalîla’s immediate claim to fame is its use of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument which whistles and slithers as eerily as a short wave radio fixated on sunspots. Messiaen’s symphony was composed in 1948 and comprises ten short movements spread over the length of a little more than an hour. It’s hard to think of it as a symphony, exactly, though the many episodes make clever use of thematic material introduced at the beginning and manage ultimately to convey a sense of the piece’s unity.
Turangalîla is actually quite a successful work with audiences. It manages to suggest some of the dissonant rhythmic power of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Its love music could have been written by Copland. It tinkles along like a piano concerto mimicking bird calls. It features numerous catchy melodic fragments replete with something close to joy. And it is one of symphonic music’s most memorable sonic experiences. That’s the key. Turangalîla is a kaleidoscopic adventure for the ears.
As with all blockbusters, there is a temptation to conduct Turangalîla like little more than a collection of noises. Some conductors seem to find in it mostly an opportunity to deafen the audience with stiff tam-tam blows and exhibit the many weird whistling possibilities of the ondes Martenot. British conductor Alexander Soddy, I’m happy to report, conceives of the piece as supple music and balances all the disparate elements of orchestration to fit a beautiful whole. In this respect Soddy resembles Sylvain Cambreling’s airy traversal in open sound with the SWR Orchestra, my favorite version hitherto. Oehms has managed equally beautiful sonorities here in Mannheim, and the Mannheim Theater Orchestra seems first rate in every way, as does Tamara Stefanovich, the piano soloist. (For all its ubiquity, the piano part is obbligato more than soloistic, so one does not expect anything unusual or virtuosic from the pianist). Thomas Bloch similarly tailors his adventures on the ondes Martenot to the music, rather than trying to convince us that aliens are about to land on the lawn. Perhaps most important for our enjoyment, since the music is so dominantly about sound itself, the engineers have placed us in an ideal seat. So get on your interociter, contact all the white-haired people with Elvis hairdos you know on other planets, and invite them to listen!