Arabella Steinbacher plays Zemlinsky, Korngold – Alto

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau; KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major – Arabella Steinbacher, violin/ Gulbenkian Orchestra/ Lawrence Foster/ Netherlands Philharmonic/ Marc Albrecht – Alto ALC 1474 (12/9/22) (74:21) [] ****:

This disc pairs two Viennese composers, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) and Erich Korngold (1897-1957), men of Jewish heritage whom National Socialism forced to emigrate to the United States. Zemlinsky, who gained some limited fame as a conductor well beyond his relative obscurity as a composer, had a fateful affair with Alma Schindler, who eventually left him for Gustav Mahler.  In a somewhat infamous, confessional letter, Alma wrote, “Mahler’s is the finer mind, but Alex has such wonderful hands!” Zemlinsky did marry Arnold Schoenberg’s sister, and Schoenberg provided support for Zemlinsky’s compositions, as had Johannes Brahms. As both men, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, championed the large, programmatic scores of Richard Strauss, they wrote works – which premiered at the same concert in 1905  – of comparable scale, Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Mélisande, Op. 5 and Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (1902-03), based on The Little Mermaid fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen.

The story of the reconstruction of Zemlinsky’s score proves of interest: he became unhappy with the three-movement version of the tone-poem, and he withdrew it from public performance, allotting the first movement to friend Marie Pappenheim and taking the remaining two movements with him when he emigrated to America. Only in the 1980s did the full score find re-assembly, when British PhD students, Keith J. Rooke and Alfred Clayton, examined surviving manuscripts and presented them to Antony Beaumont, who collated a critical edition in 2013 that re-instates 88 measures in the second movement the composer excised prior to the premiere. 

The symphonic poem by Zemlinsky (rec. 10-12 November 2018) opens with figures reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, suspended tones in strings, harp, and winds, quite impressionistic, following Andersen’s tale of a mermaid’s thwarted love of a mortal prince whom she had saved drowning. A solo violin intones the amorous mermaid, granted legs but no voice after her rescue. The prince marries another, and the mermaid swears vengeance; but, having restrained herself from retaliation, she achieves immortality. The music, blatantly inspired by Zemlinsky’s rejected passion for Alma Schindler, proffers a large orchestral canvas in the Richard Strauss manner of the sentimental, color elements from Ein Heldenleben. Late in the first movement, the emotional violence of the shipwreck erupts, virtually an oceanic panorama that eventually subsides into dreamy hues.

The second, longest movement, Sehr Bewegt, Raucschend, opens with a luscious fanfare worthy of Strauss and Mahler, ascending to a pageant in sweeping colors. An idyllic interlude ensues, the violin’s invoking the mermaid’s amorous intentions. At several points, the orchestral timbres invoke the colors we know from rapt Delius. Suddenly, the music assumes a more dire atmosphere, emotionally agitated, perhaps indicative of the prince’s denial of fulfillment for the mermaid. If the music can be said to imitate aspects of Wagner’s Tristan, the context belongs to the prince and his chosen mortal. The last four minutes evoke a summer pastoral; and the mermaid, too, seems smitten by beauty and triumphal impulses. The last movement involves rich, post-Wagnerian chromaticism, moving to the emotional turmoil involved in the mermaid’s having to behold the prince’s wedding. Zemlinsky indicates that this music by played “with sorrowful expression.” The sense of affective crisis emerges in most vividly effective and colossal scoring from the composer. The depth of the ocean rise up once more, and Zemlinsky’s soft strings and elated brass work suggest the mermaid’s de-materialization into an air spirit whose apotheosis promises tranquility. 

Erich Korngold achieved dramatically proven success in America, his work in Hollywood film scores actually providing the basis for his 1945 Violin Concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler – at the time married to author Franz Werfel – and premiered by Jascha Heifetz. The movie Another Dawn (1937) engenders the first movement, realized with elegant sweetness by Arabella Steinbacher and her 1716 “Booth” Stradivarius.The brief, accompanied cadenza serves as a transitional meditation on the first movement theme. The coda has Steinbacher in full fettle. 

The second movement, Romance – Andante derives from the epic 1936 adventure, Anthony Adverse, in which Gale Sondergaard gleaned the first-ever Academy Award for a supporting actress. Remember her “Life is strange!”  The love between Anthony (Fredric March) and his musically gifted Angela (Olivia de Havilland) inspires this ecstatic outburst, wherein Steinbacher’s violin finds ardent support from the orchestra’s French horn. The middle section, entirely new to the score for the Concerto proper, conveys a chromatic, haunted mystique, perhaps suggestive of the tragic outcome of the film romance. Korngold asserted that this movement required more Caruso than Paganini.

The last movement Finale: Allegro assai vivace takes its impulses from the 1937 The Prince and the Pauper, a virtuoso cinematic spectacle featuring the Mauch twins and paired nemeses, Errol Flynn and Claude Rains. The whimsy of Twain’s frolicking narrative of doubles and court intrigue makes ardent, rhetorically inventive, musical color, which Steinbacher and conductor Foster indulge to the fullest. The last two minutes break into a fervent village dance, profuse in its energetic depiction of a kingdom’s happy ending.  

A curious, successful pairing of two Vienna masters of orchestral color.

—Gary Lemco

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