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Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, September 2009

Recordings of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony don’t always take the obvious step of adding the movements from Berg’s Lyric Suite, one of which quotes a phrase from Zemlinsky’s third movement expressing devotion to the beloved. The fact that Berg’s dedication of the Lyric Suite to Zemlinsky turned out to be a “cover” for the real subject of the piece, his passion for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, does nothing to diminish the affinity between the late-Romantic Zemlinsky and the Expressionistic Berg. And this performance of the Lyric Symphony is strong on the turbulent intensity that launches it, and is never completely stilled, even in the outwardly serene finale.

Roman Trekel’s experience in big operatic roles, not least Wagner, makes him an excellent choice for the four male-voice movements: he has the presence and range to belong in the company of the starriest-baritones, from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Bryn Terfel, who have recorded the work. Twyla Robinson is less of a known quantity, and at first (in the second movement) I thought that she was lacking in at least some of the strong vocal character that is called for. Other singers have a more effortless grandeur in the challenging sixth movement, but Robinson is excellent in the intimate aspects of the fourth.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, July 2009

The Houston Symphony Orchestra joins the Naxos label roster under its (relatively) new maestro in one of the most formidable Viennese late romantic works. Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony owes much of its inspiration to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, another collection of orchestral songs considered a symphony by the composer. Instead of Chinese poets, this time the words come from India—love lyrics by Bengali Rabindranath Tagore.

The orchestra sounds wonderfully lush under Hans Graf, though maybe not as lush as it sometimes did under his predecessor, Christoph Eschenbach. Ironically, Eschenbach released a prize-winning version of this score last year himself, with two of the best-known current German singers.

Under Graf, baritone Roman Trekl almost holds his own with the sensational Matthias Goerne. Graf’s soprano, Twyla Robinson, may even be preferable to her more famous counterpart—the voice is bigger and, at this stage of her career, brighter than Christine Schafer’s. The Naxos CD lists for little more than a third of the price of Eschenbach’s, too.

Patricia Kelly
Courier Mail, June 2009

Naxos often makes brave recording decisions…Zemlinsky’s symphonic setting of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet ten years his senior, also rekindles a discussion on choral symphonies. Are they real symphonies, or just orchestrated song cycles? In this performance Twyla Robinson (who sang at the 70th birthday gala at Carnegie Hall for no less a light than the stellar mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne), baritone Roman Trekel (whose gritty German style is so right for the textures) and Hans Graf with his Houston Symphony weave an intelligent path through the demanding material.  They balance the rise and fall, the soaring and settling of its complex structure with a well measured sensitivity. Houston Symphony also combines nuance and definition in the three pieces from Berg’s Lyric Suite in the string orchestral setting he made later from the original for string quartet. It breathes passion at every sinuous, atonal turn of this ‘small monument to a great love’, as it has been described.

Phil Muse
Atlanta Audio Society, June 2009

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942) was well-connected, being the brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and related by marriage to Gustav Mahler (his first cousin Alma Schindler was Mahler’s wife). More than that, he was a supremely gifted lyricist in a time and place (pre-WW1 Vienna) that simply overflowed with an over-abundance of lyricism. It should thus come as no surprise that Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, Op. 18 should compare favorably with Mahler’s Song of the Earth as a union of orchestra and song at their zenith.

The present recording by Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra brings out the salient qualities in Zemlinsky’s score: the glowing harmonies, the expressive beauty of the writing, the intricate and brilliant orchestration, and of course the lyricism. As in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, male and female voices alternate in seven settings in German translation from the love poems of the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Zemlinsky arranged the poems so that they tell a story from the first glimpse of the beloved to the final heartfelt parting.

Soprano Twyla Robinson and baritone Roman Terkel share the honors here with eloquent performances. Robinson shines particularly in the song Sprich zu mir, Geliebter (Speak to me, my beloved), which requires a hushed quality understating the intimacy of the words and is sung in the manner of an arioso. In Befrei’ mich von den Banden (Free me from the bonds of love), by contrast, Terkel heeds to perfection the composer’s markings “fiery and with strength” and “stormily.” Both orchestra and vocalists do a splendid job realizing this work’s requirement for real intensity of expression.

The companion work here, Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg (1885–1935), compliments the Zemlinsky symphony very nicely. As with the Zemlinsky, this work represents Berg at his height. The emotion in these three pieces, marled Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso, and Adagio appassionato, runs deep and is intricately involved. It is also understated, as befits music that Berg wrote to commemorate his unconsummated longing for a married woman. As such, I feel that such subtleties as the slyly descending motif that appears at the end of the Andante are better captured in the original version for string quartet (I highly recommend the version by the New Zealand String Quartet, Naxos 8.557374), although the present performance by Graf and the Houston SO has much to say for itself. With the Zemlinsky, it makes for an attractive pairing.

James Leonard, June 2009

The Houston Symphony’s reading of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony may be among the finest ever recorded, and still it’s not the best performance on the disc. That honor goes to the performance of three movements from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite arranged for string orchestra, a tonally sumptuous and emotionally expressive account that rivals the very best recorded versions. In the Houston Orchestra, German conductor Hans Graf seems to have found a kindred musical spirit; the synergy between the conductor and orchestra infuses these performances with a marvelous combination of intensity and precision. In particular, the voluptuous playing of Houston’s superb string section is enormously affecting.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony has always posed something of a problem for audiences. On one hand, the seven-movement symphonic song cycle for soprano, baritone, and orchestra reminds some listeners too much of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while on the other hand, few listeners can actually remember Zemlinsky’s melodies after his work ends. With the sterling contributions of soprano Twyla Robinson and baritone Roman Trekel, Graf and the Houston not only enliven a fin de siècle love story in symphonic form, they actually succeed in making the work memorable. Still, Zemlinsky’s chromatic erotic epic cannot match the impact and power of Berg’s dodecaphonic masterpiece. Recorded in sound that is clear but slightly too dry, this disc deserves to be heard by any fan of the pieces or the composers.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2009

Zemlinsky took over where Mahler left off, his Lyric Symphony being a real-life doomed love story told in a score full of sensual, erotic and dramatic colours. Using a large orchestra with soprano and baritone soloist, it reflects the fact that he was one of the great opera composer’s of the 20th century, snatches of Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragodie appearing. It has received many outstanding recordings in recent years, and this one can be added among the finest. Of course the human voice is a very personal thing, the highly experienced German baritone, Roman Trekel, having a noticeable vibrato and a tight sound that has been much admired in the world’s major opera houses. His partner is very different, Twyla Robinson’s soprano having a light silvery tone, ideal for the score’s happier moments. The Houston Symphony’s playing for their Music Director, Hans Graf, is excellent, his tempos generally quick and avoiding any self-indulgent histrionics. The big orchestral moments are well captured by the engineers, and they resist making the internal structure too internally defined in the sumptuous passages. The male protagonist in that story was the composer, Alban Berg, and he was to write for his lover the Lyric Suite using a string quartet. Three pieces were later scored for string orchestra, and here make an ideal companion piece. Where Zemlinsky retained tonality, his friends Berg and Schoenberg had moved to atonality and serialism. Berg stated that the first movement of the Lyric Suite was the most beautiful music he had ever written. It probably was, and certainly the Houston strings play it as such. The engineering is very good.

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