ZEMLINSKY Conducting: Complete Studio Recordings Pristine Audio PASC 642 (2 CDs 58:33; 55:30, complete listing of contents below)[www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), Austrian pianist, organist, composer, and conductor, became a staple of the musical life in Vienna, studying with Bruckner and winning the support of Brahms and, for a while, the amorous attention of Alma Schindler, who would later marry Gustav Mahler. “Mahler’s is the greater intellect and likely career,” mused Alma, “but Alex has such wonderful hands.” A bridge between the late Romantic and the Second Viennese School of composition, Zemlinsky managed to evolve into a singular, powerful voice whose influence as a teacher, composer, and conductor extended to Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Erich Kleiber, George Szell, Anton Webern, Kur Weill, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Mark Obert-Thorn has assembled the select, twenty or so electrical recordings Zemlinsky left to posterity, 1927-1934, those documents which seem to justify Igor Stravinsky’s mature opinion of Zemlinsky as “having achieved the most consistently high standard” of those conductors Stravinsky admired.
The set opens with a triptych of Mozart overtures from the Autumn, 1927 with the Berlin-Charlottenburg Opera Orchestra, the older name for the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. The 1797 Overture to Don Giovanni exerts a purposeful, grim drive in its D Minor evocations of the demonic forces that will eventually drag the Don to his doom. The lighter moments -mainly in D Major – in this forecast of a dramma giocoso do not lack for sprightly wit as a testament to the libertine’s destructive bravado. The 1790 Overture to Cosi fan tutte enjoys a palatable luster in the woodwinds, despite some sonic distance in acoustic. No real music from the opera proper emerges, but a tone a ribald, presto gusto dominates this inflated conceit that woman is by nature incapable of fidelity. The 1782 Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio captures in breathless pace the exotic (Turkish) setting with spirted timpani, cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, typical of janissary sensibility. Zemlinsky turns to Beethoven’s personal “martyrdom,” his epic struggles with his opera Fidelio (1804) and the last of its four overtures. From January 1929 we have the Fidelio Overture, Op. 72c that cuts away most of the elaborate, rhetorical content and high drama of the alternatives. Still, Zemlinsky manages some potent tension on the opening pages, as the lyrical theme emerges and announces itself clearly in horns and winds. The string playing does become a bit ragged in the presto passages, but the fanfare theme and the galloping resolution enjoy a fervent commitment to a feeling of justice and liberty.
Obert-Thorn then proffers on Disc One two performances – which vary by a mere 6 seconds – of the Weber Overture to Der Freischütz from Autumn1927, of which one version receives its first commercial appearance. Zemlinsky’s reading in both cases possesses a directness and drive more in keeping with literalist tradition by way of Toscanini and Weingartner, with only a hint of portamento. The string line remains taut and clearly articulated. The codas in each case gather significant momentum after considered, brief pauses in the musical line. Zemlinsky in January 1929 turned to the lively score from Rossini’s 1817 La gazza ladra, comic music with some serious, political undertones. The virtuoso Overture to La gazza ladra often graced the programs of conductors Toscanini and Beecham; here, the opening snare drum and martial fanfare from Zemlinsky announces a pomp and pageantry that soon evolve into a clever mockery of opera seria. The swift alternations of loud and soft passages almost hint at Rossini’s love for the old concerto grosso dialogues. But, of course, we speak here of “Monsieur Crescendo” and his apt use of orchestral dynamics. Last on Disc One we have Zemlinsky’s contributing energy in September 1928 to Friedrich von Flotow’s obscure opera Alessandro Stradella of 1844. The plot of the opera, set in Venice and Rome, loosely follows the career of the 17th Century Italian composer and singer. The Overture meanders gloomily for half of its eight-minute duration, finally offering a tremolo-accompanied series of rising scales and trumpet fanfares and jaunty march, with its own rising figurations. A kind of storm music emerges, disappears, and then more jaunty, martial figures that culminate in a swaggering climax.
Disc 2 begins with another concert rarity, the 1856 Overture to Les Dragons de Villars by Louis-Aimé Maillard (1817-1871), also recorded in September 1928 by Zemlinsky. The plot line, presumably, had been adapted from a story by Georges Sand. Plucked strings and horns march out an attractive tune with gloomy undertones that suddenly bursts forth in triumphant declamations favoring the Berlin State Opera Orchestra trumpets. The oboe and clarinet now convey us to the farm of one Thibault and his wife Georgette. Some commentators have noted the likeness of the music to a tune, “Entrance of the Peers,“ from Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan. The remainder of the program could easily be traced to Vienna and its musical environs, which means a degree of European catholicity of taste. The music of the inimitable Johann Strauss, his Overture to Der Fledermaus (rec. 1927), has the lithe wit, sultry ariosos, and instrumental repartee we well expect, given our familiarity with this music under Clemens Krauss and Bruno Walter. From 15 April 1930 we find Zemlinsky’s leading the Berlin Philharmonic in two works, the first of which, Smetana’s popular “Vltava” from Ma Vlast, delivers a rendition whose speed even Ferenc Fricsay does not match. Zemlinsky’s urgings, however, do not diminish the lyric and dramatic power of the music’s episodes, and village dance enjoys a smart sense of rustic accent, while the nocturne achieves a haunting stasis rife with woodland beauties. Zemlinsky’s “rapids” prove no joke, and they rather assathe approach to the High Castle of Prague with rich authority in a lush apotheosis. The little “Polka” from Weinberger’s 1926 Schwanda the Bagpiper relishes its Czech folk impulses.
Ukrainian tenor Rudolf Gerlach-Rusnak (1894-1960) appears in arias (rec. 6 October 1932) from Verdi and Puccini, and he distinguishes himself with a virile top line tempered by intelligent softening of his timbre in his brief moments from Il Travatore. His German version of “Di quella pira” has swagger and upward thrust, and with the chorus behind him, good conviction. A more tender persona emerges as Cavaradossi in Tosca, first in his apperception of Floria Tosca’s portrait, and then, doomed for his republican sympathies. Baritone Gerhard Hüsch (1901-1984) joins bass Eugen Fuchs (1893-1971), who had taught tenor Gerlach-Rusnak in Prague, 1918. Hüsch and Fuchs collaborate in a duet from Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (rec. 16 and 18 January 1933 in Berlin), a brilliant romp between Falstaff and Fluth about a planned seduction. From Smetana’s The Bartered Bride from the same recording session we hear Fuchs and American tenor Charles Kullman (1903-1983) – perhaps best remembered on discs for his 1936 Mahler Song of the Earth with Kerstin Thorborg and Bruno Walter – in the lively duet between (bass) Kecal and (tenor) Jeník, in which Kecal attempts to buy his rival off by the offer of a wealthy widow. The infectious, Czech folk rhythms and clever patter combine in a performance that alone warrants the price of admission. Soprano Jarmila Novotná (1907-1994) sings the lovely Poeme by Fibich from January 1933, Berlin, and she sings again in February 1934 the popular Humoresque by Dvorak. Her light, swooping coloratura proves charming, if a bit mannered, but the effect in this Zemlinsky retrospective has been memorable. Restorations by Obert-Thorn have been seamless and worthy of radio audition.
ZEMLINSKY: Complete Recordings
MOZART: Overtures to: Don Giovanni; Cosi fan tutte; Die Entführung aus dem Serail
BEETHOVEN: Fidelio Overture;
WEBER: Der Freischütz two takes;
ROSSINI: La gazza ladra – Overture;
FLOTOW: Alessandro Stradella – Overture;
MAILLART: Les Dragons de Villars – Overture;
J. STRAUSS: Die Fledermaus – Overture;
SMETANA: Vltava from Ma Vlast;
WEINBERGER: Polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper;
VERDI: Il Trovatore: “Ah, si, ben mio”; “Di quella pira”;
PUCCINI: Tosca: “Recondita armonia”; “E lucevan le stella”;
NICOLAI: The Merry Wives of Windsor: “In einem Waschkorb?”;
SMETANA: The Bartered Bride: “Kazdy jen tu svou za jedinous”;
Berlin State Opera Orchestra
Berlin Phiharmonic Orchestra
Vienna Concert Orchestra
Rudolf Gerlach-Rusnak, tenor
Gerhard Husch, baritone
Eugen Fuchs, bass
Charles Kullmann, tenor
Jarmila Novotna, soprano