About this Recording
8.570540 - ZEMLINSKY: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano / Cello Sonata / 3 Pieces
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Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Chamber Music


The music of Alexander Zemlinsky has come to the attention of an increasingly wide public over the past quarter-century, and it is on his operas, orchestral and chamber works, as well as a number of fine songs, that his reputation rests. As with various other of his contemporaries, chamber music features prominently in his formative years, though other than for three emotionally wide-ranging string quartets which each mark decisive points in his development, Zemlinsky had effectively abandoned the genre at the turn of the twentieth century. The present disc brings together three of the chamber works written during the 1890s, and reveals a skilful and assured figure in the process of working free of influences to become the composer whose individuality has only latterly been recognised.

Both works for cello and piano owe their provenance to Zemlinsky’s friend and colleague Adolf Buxbaum, and both were lost (presumed destroyed) for over a century, though the unidentified manuscripts had some years previously come into the possession of the pianist Peter Wallfisch. His cellist son Raphael discovered them in his father’s effects after the latter’s death, and performing editions of both were prepared by the musicologist and Zemlinsky authority Antony Beaumont.

The Drei Stücke (1891) are now among the composer’s earliest surviving works. Zemlinsky probably intended them as a present for Buxbaum, who left Vienna soon afterwards to become principal cellist of the newly-formed Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Glasgow. The opening Humoreske bursts into life with a lively theme shared between the instruments, and contrasted with an expressive melody that wends its leisurely way until brought short by a full repeat of the first theme. The following Lied takes the form of a rhapsodic cello melody that, after a brief but thoughtful introduction, unfolds in tandem with gentle and complementary piano figuration until reaching the poetic final bars. The closing Tarantell then provides for a telling contrast in its animated and rhythmically accentuated interplay for cello and piano, with only the briefest of allusions to the preceding piece before the brusque conclusion.

Completed early in 1894, and given its première by Buxbaum in Vienna on 23rd April that year, the Cello Sonata is an altogether more substantial work, and its reemergence has surely helped to fill out the picture of Zemlinsky’s early years as a composer, as well as being a distinctive and worthwhile piece in its own right. While its stylistic antecedents are easy to identify, the technical and emotional scope of the music are already Zemlinsky’s, in whose development the work is a milestone.

The first movement commences with a notably Brahmsian theme (albeit with one striking allusion to Tchaikovsky) that brings intensive interplay between cello and piano. The second theme, calmer and also more relaxed in its overall expression, leads into a full repeat of the exposition then to a development that, while beginning quietly, soon builds to a forceful yet methodical discussion of those ideas so far expounded. Dying down, this prepares for a largely literal recapitulation of the main themes, after which the initial intensity quickly resurfaces for a purposeful, even vehement coda. The slow movement opens with a melody that enables Zemlinsky to display his most poetic manner, cello and piano engaging in a dialogue whose ruminative calm is broken by the darker-hued theme that emerges. This makes way for a return to the initial melody, then a hushed pause prepares for a lengthy coda in which aspects of the theme are wistfully recalled on the way to a tender close. The finale then sets off with a theme whose intently serious manner again recalls Brahms, though this is followed by one whose lilting warmth could only have been inspired by Dvořák. After a wistful codetta, the movement launches into an intensive discussion of the first theme, with evocative pizzicato writing bringing about a full reprise, in which the second theme is now rendered in the minor key. Dying down, this presently makes way for a coda which seems to touch on motivic aspects of all three movements, before easing into a nostalgic vein that concludes the work with an unexpected serenity.

The Cello Sonata was the second of Zemlinsky’s chamber works (being preceded by a Piano Quartet of which only fragments survive) to be given its première under the auspices of the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein, the concert-giving organization which, presided over by Brahms, was the main instrumental platform in Vienna for younger composers. It was the première of his String Quintet (of which only the outer movements survive) in November 1894 that led to the meeting between Brahms and Zemlinsky, in which the latter was taken to task for his harmonic recklessness and tonal inconsistency. As if in reply to ostensibly ‘just criticism’, Zemlinsky produced his Clarinet Trio which, first performed in Vienna on 11th December 1896, received the imprimatur of the older composer, who recommended it (along with the slightly later First String Quartet) for publication by Simrock. While indebted to Brahms in its scoring (the latter’s own Clarinet Trio had appeared five years earlier), the piece is nonetheless Zemlinsky in its formal and expressive approach, and today certainly ranks among his most performed works.

The first movement opens with a theme that marries the ruminative and decisive to striking effect, its deceptively unforced manner leading into the wistful second theme with no appreciable break in continuity. A full repeat of the exposition then follows, and this is succeeded by a development that makes full use of the expressive character of each instrument as it builds towards an extensive climax on the first theme. A subtly modified recapitulation now ensues, affording the second theme correspondingly greater space to unfold, before a coda in which the music’s essentially melancholic nature is pointedly underlined. The slow movement begins with a gentle piano solo that contains the thematic material which clarinet and cello will presently draw upon in a sustained lyrical outpouring. Its sombre final phrase is made the basis for a more agitated central section in which the instruments converse in rich counterpoint before arriving at an expressive pause. From here, the initial music is resumed (though now with numerous modifications of harmony and register), then the movement heads gradually and yet intently towards a conclusion mingling the resigned with the regretful; which combination is clearly but unslavishly derived from Brahms. The finale is a surprisingly compact sonata-rondo whose tripping main theme contrasts effectively with the more leisurely ideas that follow it. All three instruments maintain a close-knit contrapuntal texture that only finally opens out in the coda, elements from all of the themes now being brought into play as the movement draws to a conclusion in which the poise of the final bars is denied by three peremptory chords.

Richard Whitehouse

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