July 23, 2009


Zemlinsky: The Mermaid—Symphonic Fantasy; Sinfonietta. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Webern: Vocal and Instrumental Music. Tony Arnold and Claire Booth, sopranos; David Wilson-Johnson, bass; Simon Joly Chorale, Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

     Alexander von Zemlinsky lived from 1871 to 1942, Anton Webern from 1883 to 1945, but they might as well have been born in different centuries, if not on different planets. Each pursued musical ideals with considerable intensity, but the nature of those ideals differs so much that it is exceedingly difficult to see how two Austrian composers, both natives of late-19th-century Vienna, could have developed such diametrically different aesthetics. Zemlinsky’s is the more conventional and accessible of the two. He was Alma Schindler’s lover when she was his composition student, before she met and married Gustav Mahler, and Zemlinsky’s earlier music has much that is Mahlerian about it. The scale of the 1903 fantasy Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s gentled but rather dour fairy tale, is not quite Mahlerian, but the 40-minute work is certainly symphonic in scope, developmentally complex and written for large (although, again, not quite Mahler-size) orchestra. The New Zealand Symphony plays the piece expansively, James Judd highlights the niceties of the scoring to good effect, and the fantasy’s pervasive melancholy comes through effectively. But the work as a whole is less telling than the much shorter Sinfonietta, which dates to 1934 – by which time Zemlinsky had come to favor more-compressed forms. There is nothing programmatic about this three-movement work, in which Zemlinsky balances post-Romantic yearning and expressiveness against thematic fragmentation and poignancy. The piece is perhaps more interesting than emotionally compelling, but it is well structured – Zemlinsky was a fine musical craftsman – and uses the orchestra effectively.

     And yet, in the same year Zemlinsky composed his Sinfonietta, Webern began his transcription of the Ricercata from Bach’s Musical Offering (completed in 1935), and had long since written his Two Songs, Op. 8 for voice and eight instruments, to texts by Rilke (1910); Four Songs, Op. 13 for voice and orchestra (1914-1918); Six Songs, Op. 14 (1917-1921); Five Sacred Songs, Op. 15 (1917-1922); and Two Songs, Op. 19, to texts by Goethe (1926). Webern’s music, aphoristic in the extreme, comes from a sonic world barely recognizable as related in any way to Zemlinsky’s. Tightly knit, delicately scored and with excruciating attention to detail, Webern’s works remain difficult to perform even today – and often difficult to hear, too, since so much happens in so short a time span. There is a purity to Webern’s music that nicely complements Bach’s – which, by the way, Webern called “abstract” and “unapproachable,” adjectives far more applicable to his own work for many listeners. Webern uses voices as instruments: the Op. 8 songs, for example, were inspired by love but contain none of it in any obvious way, instead interweaving the soprano with clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, celesta, harp, violin, viola and cello. Similarly, the Op. 19 songs – each just over a minute long – make the voices part of the ensemble of celesta, guitar, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet. For all its careful construction, Webern’s music is often most notable for its sound rather than any underlying emotive content. And Robert Craft, who is the expert in Webern, brings out that sound beautifully throughout this new CD, whose generous 80-minute length makes it difficult to hear straight through (Webern wrote in small bits and is best heard that way). The purely orchestral works here are particularly distinctive and effective: Five Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5 (1909-1929); Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911-1913); and Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 (1940), whose tone row Webern worked on with very considerable care. It is Op. 30 and two works to texts by Hildegard Jone (1891-1963) that show Webern at his most intense. Das Augenlicht, ‘Through Our Open Eyes Light Flows into the Heart,’ Op. 26, is for mixed chorus and orchestra and dates to 1935; and the Second Cantata, Op. 31, a six-movement piece for soprano and bass solos, mixed chorus and orchestra, which dates to 1941-1943. This is one of Webern’s greatest works as well as his last, pushing even his harmonic and rhythmic extremes beyond their previous bounds, and including at one point a chord of all 12 pitches played by 11 different instruments. Webern’s music is far less easily “listenable” than Zemlinsky’s – or even than that of Webern’s mentor, Arnold Schoenberg – but it remains a uniquely intense experience, especially in small doses, and Craft turns it into both an aural and intellectual fascination.

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