In a recital of relatively rare piano music, we get to hear the poetic musings of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), composer and conductor, even suitor for the hand of Alma Schindler, who would wed Gustav Mahler. In a letter Alma once confessed, “Mahler’s is the great intellect, but Alex has such beautiful hands!” The music spans a period of ten years, 1891-1901, and its harmonic language begins to move away from imitative juvenilia to a statement of the composer’s own vision. The most mature of the pieces, and among the most neglected, is Ein Lichtsrahl (the Ray of Light) a mime music drama of ambiguous sexual identity to be performed at a cabaret run by Ernst von Wolzogen, the Uberbrettl. Zeminsky’s future brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg likewise contributed songs to the project. Both men shared an admiration for the poetry of Richard Dehmel; and Zemlinsky composed in 1898 his four fantasies on Dehmel poems, while Schoenberg waited one year to publish his more ambitious string sextet, Verklaerte Nacht.
Most of the piano pieces are defined by their influences, so we might dismiss the Op. 1, perhaps too glibly, as the twenty-year-old Zemkinsky’s desire to imitate Strauss, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak in a series of salon sketches. The second brief piece, Fluechtig, alludes to Chopin. The Heiter (No. 8) waltzes to a gait clearly indebted to Schubert. The Four Ballades (1892-93) Zemlinsky dedicated to his composition teacher Johann Fuchs. The Brahms Op. 10 is a decided model. The second of the Ballades is a clever setting of Der Konig von Thule, taken from Goethe’s Faust, in which a moment of tempest energy interrupts the placid mood. Der Wassermann musically responds with watercolors to a poem by Justinus Kerner. More Schumannesque is the Album-Leaf of 1895, marked sehr langsam mit innigkeit, the piece merges impulses from Tchaikovsky but also the old bachelor music of late Brahms. Of the four fantasies after Dehmel, the Waldseligkeit more than hints of Schubert and Schumann. The Liebe piece, third of the set, exploits pulsations between the two hands rather deftly. The little Sketch (1896) is a jerky piece not too far from Shostakovich’s Polka from the Age of Gold, then it takes itself seriously and tries to sound like Scriabin. The big piece is the balletic Ray of Light, lasting some seventeen minutes, in shifting colors and post-Wagnerian harmony. Zemlinsky tried to enlist Mahler’s help with another ballet project: The Triumph of Time (1901), based on a scenario by Richard Strauss’ collaborator Hofmannsthal, but Mahler squelched its production. Wonder why? At any rate, our pianist Ms. Avenhaus, a protégé of Andras Schiff, bestows affection and intelligence upon Zemlinsky’s otherwise forgotten scores, and her piano sound glitters assertively without distortion.