About this Recording
8.557331 - ZEMLINSKY: Rustic Dances, Op. 1 / Four Fantasies, Op. 9 / A Ray of Light
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Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Piano Music

Although the music of Alexander Zemlinsky has found an increasingly wide public during the past quartercentury, it is not on his piano music that his reputation rests. While it features prominently in his formative years, Zemlinsky effectively abandoned the medium at the turn of the twentieth century. The present disc collates all of the published music that Zemlinsky wrote for piano after 1891, revealing a skilful and assured figure who gradually worked free of his influences to become the composer whose mark was to be made in other fields.

Zemlinsky’s juvenilia includes two sonatas and numerous genre pieces. From 1891, the Ländliche Tänze (Rustic Dances) assembles its dance numbers into a cumulative sequence - Zemlinsky ‘trying out’ various idioms in the process. The Straussian suavity of the first is followed by the Chopinesque elegance of No. 2. The third has a wistfulness redolent of Schumann, and the fourth a hint of Mendelssohn, before the Lisztian radiance of No. 5. Brahms is to the fore in the sixth, as is Dvořák in the seventh. The waltz-tempo of No. 8 complements the Ländler-tempo of its similarly Schubertian successor, to be followed by the lively rhythmic profile of No. 10. The final two pieces proceed without pause, the drawing-room gallantry of No. 11 leading into the overt rhetoric of No. 12, which brings the collection to a stirring close.

Despite attracting favourable notices, Zemlinsky may have felt that this ‘Op. 1’ gave a misleading impression of the composer he aspired to be. He published nothing further for six years, though the Vier Balladen (Four Ballades) composed during 1892-3 and dedicated to his teacher Johann Fuchs, were originally intended as his ‘Op. 2’. Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades are directly though never slavishly evoked - above all, in the first, Archibald Douglas, after a poem by Theodor Fontane. From the depths of the piano it proceeds in ominous accents to a tumultuous central section, regaining its initial mood at the close. The second ballad, Der König von Thule, is an affectionate rendering of Gretchen’s song from Goethe’s Faust, a central surge of emotion only briefly disturbing the placid over-all mood. The third ballad, Der Wassermann, after a poem by Justinus Kerner, is largely humorous and good-natured, with a hint of malevolence to heighten tension towards its centre. The fourth ballad, Intermezzo, apparently has a secret programme: the coming-together of its two main ideas, respectively impulsive and capricious, suggests an amorous encounter, with the music then tapering away in a serene conclusion to the cycle as a whole.

A similar intimacy is embodied in the Albumblatt (Albumleaf), ‘Souvenir from Vienna’, written in 1895 and dedicated to his pupil Catharina Maleschewski. Marked ‘Very slow and inward’, with allusions to Wagner and Tchaikovsky, the piece inhabits a wider emotional range than its title implies, and, in its subtly evolving form and modulatory freedom, suggests that Zemlinsky was already familiar with the sets of piano pieces that Brahms had published earlier in the decade.

Equally attractive is the Skizze (Sketch) of 1896, revised from an unpublished set of four pieces written five years earlier. Its capering initial idea is contrasted with a more ruminative theme that pointedly intervenes, only for the opening idea to have the final say.

In 1898 Zemlinsky composed his most imposing piano work, the Vier Fantasien (Four Fantasies), after poems by Richard Dehmel. Each of these miniature tone-poems encapsulates, but does not portray graphically, verse by the most prominent of Viennese Secessionist poets. The first fantasy, Stimme des Abends, has a gently brooding quality, reaching the briefest of climaxes before regaining its repose. The second fantasy, Waldseligkeit, contrasts its capricious opening idea with a hymn-like rejoinder, building in intensity and developing its themes right through to the close. The third fantasy, Liebe, is of a rapt expression such as inspires some telling exchanges between left and right hands. The fourth fantasy, Käferlied, is the shortest and lightest, its insouciant gait rounding off the set in humorous elegance.

The instrumental rendering of Dehmel’s poetry was taken to far more ambitious lengths by Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky’s contemporary and later brother-in-law, in his Verklärte Nacht the following year. In 1901 both composers contributed to the Überbrettl, the writer and entrepreneur Ernst von Wolzogen’s attempt at establishing a populist cabaret in Berlin. Schoenberg wrote the songs now known as Brettl-lieder, and Zemlinsky composed music for a mime drama with piano accompaniment entitled Ein Lichtstrahl (A Ray of Light). The scenario, devised by playwright and actor Oskar Geller and typical melodrama-cum-farce of its period, concerns the encounters, both amorous and otherwise, of ‘He’, ‘She’ and ‘The Other’; their ménage à trois being conducted in a room with a large wardrobe during the early evening.

The music opens in relaxed, unassuming mood, though a more agitated manner soon asserts itself and provokes some angry gestures, the initial music then continuing in more elaborate textures. A waspish repeated-note motif initiates a more humorous episode allowing the opportunity for illustrative exaggeration on the part of the pianist (and no doubt the mime-artists). Next comes the false gracefulness of a ‘song without words’, with its equally charming trio. The confrontational mood is alluded to, only for the graceful music to resume its unruffled course. Next, the humorous episode is recalled, and the two musics alternate before a decisive new theme, derived from the opening idea, steers towards a final return of the graceful music, before concluding proceedings with a vigorous and unashamedly theatrical flourish.

Ein Lichtstrahl was not performed at the Überbrettl, perhaps because of perceived sexual ambiguities, or on account of the difficulty of its piano writing. Zemlinsky made a shortened version for Franz Artzt’s Cabaret du Quartier Latin in Dresden, but again no performance was forthcoming, and the piece was to languish unheard until 1992. Its combining of direct illustration with a subtly developing variation form has no parallels elsewhere in the composer’s output, and its many felicities are best savoured, as here, in his original fulllength version.

A similar ignominy was accorded the three-act ballet Der Triumph der Zeit (The Triumph of Time), on which Zemlinsky worked during 1901. The diffuse Symbolist scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal aroused little enthusiasm from Gustav Mahler, effectively killing off the project. The composer salvaged two orchestral works and, from the first act, Das gläserne Herz (The Crystal Heart), this brief Minuet, published in 1903. Its whimsical charm, tailor-made for the amateur market, makes an unconsciously low-key ending to Zemlinsky’s output for piano.

Richard Whitehouse

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