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Hyperion Records

CDA67985 - Zemlinsky: Symphonies
Profile of a girl (preparatory work for a decorative stain, 1897) by Koloman Moser (1868-1918)
Recording details: February 2013
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
Release date: February 2014
Total duration: 78 minutes 8 seconds

'Considering that Alexander von Zemlinsky was in his twenties when he composed his two early symphonies, both works demonstrate an uncommon level of maturity … Everywhere one senses a voice leaping to establish its own identity.

Unlike James Conlon on a rival coupling of the same two works with the Cologne Giirzenich Orchestra (EMI—nla), Martyn Brabbins plays the B flat Symphony’s long first-movement exposition repeat, which brings its total timing to an imposing 16'26" (against 12'11" on Conlon’s recording) … Zemlinsky’s scoring is both rich and detailed, and when he draws his forces together for the biggest climaxes one senses that he knows exactly w'hat he is doing. Those readers wedded to the great Austro-German Romantics are likely to find this coupling irresistible' (Gramophone) » More

'Martyn Brabbins has a strong empathy for Zemlinsky’s musical language, demonstrating a masterly control of pacing in each movement … the present release can be confidently recommended for the refined and subtle playing of the BBC NOW and a recording that achieves an ideal balance between textural clarity and Romantic warmth' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'You may know about the life of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942): born full of promise in old Vienna, dying disappointed and neglected in émigré New York, brother-in-law of Schoenberg, lover of Alma Schindler who ditched him for Mahler. But there are increasing attempts to address this imbalance, with some of Zemlinsky's prominent, later works—the 'Lyric' Symphony and the tone poem The Mermaid—now programmed regularly. These two early symphonies, played with the right degree of late-Romantic lushness and fluency by the BBC NOW under Martyn Brabbins, place him firmly in that fascinating stylistic crevice between Brahms and Mahler. Whether you see him as a footnote to the 19th century or a prelude to the 20th, the music has a variety and melodic warmth which is well worth exploring' (The Observer)

'Those wanting the two symphonies will find the present release, with lustrous sound courtesy of Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall and decent booklet notes by Gavin Plumley, admirably fills a gap in their collection' (International Record Review) » More

'The long shadow of Brahms fell over the many rising composers in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, and his special influence on Alexander Zemlinsky is clear in the younger musician’s two completed symphonies, here played with Brahmsian breadth and sway by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Martyn Brabbins … the symphonies in D minor and B flat major are colourful pieces in the rich turn-of-the-century mosaic of Austrian art' (The Independent on Sunday) » More

'Both works are played for all they are worth … worth investigating for offbeat glimpses into Viennese composition in transition' (The Sunday Times)

'The Symphony in B flat is impressive … the descending horn call at the start is such a simple yet memorable idea—nostalgic, bucolic, bidding farewell to a musical culture and tradition already on the wane. The ensuing Allegro has infectious swagger, the Scherzando has Mahlerian bounce and the Adagio is marvellous … Hyperion's sound is glowing—one of the richest recordings they've issued. Martyn Brabbins's BBC Welsh players raise the roof in the noisier climaxes, and the notes are excellent. Lovely sleeve art too' (

Moderato  [7'22]
Adagio  [9'07]
Moderato  [10'45]

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Martyn Brabbins perform two works from the crucible of the Viennese fin de siècle.

Zemlinsky wrote his two completed symphonies while studying at the Conservatory. He wrote under the watchful eye of its conservative masters, and was greatly influenced by Brahms, but like many of his classmates and contemporaries, Zemlinsky peppered the otherwise bland Conservatory diet with visits to performances of new works by Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Caught between these two factions, these symphonies show him wrestling, often thrillingly, with the pedagogical parameters imposed upon him.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
We have a slightly false impression of the Viennese fin de siècle. While it was certainly a time of unprecedented cultural experimentation, with Mahler, Schoenberg, Freud, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Loos, Klimt and Schiele trying and testing new theories and ideas, they did so against a backdrop of incurable conservatism. Even the institutions in Vienna that had trained these considerable minds rejected their pupils, favouring the academic status quo over innovation. Many of these writers, artists and musicians consequently found the atmosphere in the city stifling, though no doubt the confrontational relationship that arose between its conservative populace and a revolutionary intelligentsia fired even more daring experiments.

Musical matters in Vienna were guarded by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Its broad base—running not only musical education via the Conservatory it had founded in 1817, but also the Singverein and eventually the Musikverein, the city’s foremost concert hall—meant that it determined musical taste. The Conservatory (now part of the University for Music and the Performing Arts) provided a solid if conventional pedagogical model, largely unreceptive to the ‘new music’ of Wagner and Liszt. Instead, like the critic Eduard Hanslick, who dominated the Neue Freie Presse and public opinion alike, the Gesellschaft proselytized Brahms. Consequently, and rather unfortunately, they framed the Hamburg-born composer as a reactionary, though Arnold Schoenberg quite rightly deemed him a ‘progressive’.

It was within this somewhat schismatic environment that Alexander Zemlinsky took his first musical steps. His father, a Slovak, and his mother, from a Sephardi-Muslim marriage, lived in Leopoldstadt, just across the Danube Canal from the Innere Stadt. Although the second district, nicknamed ‘Matzo Island’, saw rapid gentrification during the late nineteenth century, owing to the emancipation of the Jews in 1867, the crash of 1873 had a noticeable impact right across Vienna. To alleviate their personal financial problems, the Zemlinskys took in a lodger, one whose piano-playing doubtless influenced their precocious son Alexander. Learning the instrument, as well as singing and playing the organ at temple, the young Zemlinsky was gifted a much broader schooling than would have been expected for a family of their standing at the time. Moving from the Sephardic School to the Volksschule and onward to the Gymnasium, Zemlinsky subsequently started preparatory classes at the Conservatory, beginning his formal musical education.

Formality was indeed the watchword of the institution, where Zemlinsky’s music theory teacher, Robert Fuchs, was a renowned conservative. Sure of his counterpoint and orchestration though he may have been, Fuchs’s own music lacked flair. Nevertheless, he taught some of the greatest talents of the ensuing generation, including George Enescu, the operetta composer Leo Fall, Gustav Mahler, Joseph Marx, Franz Schreker and Hugo Wolf. Like many of his classmates and contemporaries, Zemlinsky peppered the otherwise bland Conservatory diet with visits to performances of new works by Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Caught between these two factions, the music Zemlinsky wrote during his student years, including his first two completed symphonies, shows him wrestling, often thrillingly, with the pedagogical parameters imposed upon him.

Zemlinsky had begun work on a Symphony in E minor in 1891. Like many Viennese composers before and after him, writing a new symphony proved a daunting task and he soon abandoned the plans. Yet he returned to the breach in 1892 with a Symphony in D minor, working throughout the first half of the year. Zemlinsky conducted the first movement at an end-of-term concert in the Musikverein. Brahms, the sovereign guard of the Viennese symphonic tradition, was in the audience (as he often was at Conservatory events). It was an auspicious occasion and marked the peak of Zemlinsky’s obsession with the great master; he later commented, in 1922: ‘My works fell even more than before under the influence of Brahms. I remember how even among my colleagues it was considered particularly praiseworthy to compose in as “Brahmsian” a manner as possible. We were soon notorious in Vienna as the dangerous “Brahmins”.’ Zemlinsky continued work on his Symphony later that year and it was premiered in its entirety on 10 February 1893, conducted by his encouraging teacher Johann Nepomuk Fuchs (Robert Fuchs’s brother). George Enescu was among the violinists in the orchestra.

The opening movement is a bold sonata form construction, shunning any claims of academicism with its gripping dramatic intent. The noble first subject is followed by a flowing second subject, both packed with developmental potential. Keen to show his investigative credentials, though, Zemlinsky immediately starts examining constituent motifs, a process which potentially robs the development proper of its purpose. This was partly reflective of Robert Fuchs’s idea of motivic economy, which Zemlinsky explores in a particularly expressive manner, looking forward to Schoenberg’s idea of ‘developing variation’. Yet the middle section of the movement is no wallflower, featuring violent shifts between major and minor, eventually heralding the thunderous recapitulation and a long exhausted coda.

The ensuing scherzo in F major, starting with the rising fourth that began the entire Symphony, flaunts syncopation in a manner not dissimilar to Brahms’s Bohemian friend Dvorák, while the trio, in D flat major, is the work of a thoroughbred ‘Brahmin’. The slow movement tries to preserve the unruffled air of a Bruckner Adagio, though it is haunted by the impulsive mood of the first movement. Something of that disquiet remains in the initial stretches of the finale, but rather than resolving the tensions, Zemlinsky shrugs them off, ending with a bold if not entirely fully earned coda.

Having completed his ‘first’ Symphony, Zemlinsky did indeed continue to ‘compose in as Brahmsian a manner as possible’, writing a Symphony in B flat major in 1897, the year that Brahms died. But while its finale clearly pays homage to Brahms by invoking the passacaglia from his Fourth Symphony, the work as a whole, written in Payerbach an der Rax, betrays a much wider sphere of influence. The first movement’s nods to Dvorák keep Zemlinsky within the Brahmsian fold, yet the call of Siegfried and the Mastersingers from the Hofoper across the Ringstrasse is equally unmistakable. Following a mellifluous introduction, these parties duke it out within the confident opening Allegro.

The scherzo is a chattering and occasionally brusque dance, with a more civilized alter ego. That Ländlerisch trio shows muted kinship with Mahler, whose First Symphony had already been heard in Budapest, Hamburg, Weimar and Berlin by the time that Zemlinsky was at work on his second contribution to the genre. The dreamy slow movement, showing a particularly expressive use of brass, soothes the tensions of the scherzo, instead calling on the music of the first movement. Previously headstrong heroism is now cast in nobler terms, before strings and curling flutes throw a melancholy light over the material.

The finale appears doubly energetic in the slow movement’s wake, striding ahead with a series of twenty-six variations. Unlike the seamless close to Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, however, there is something rather breathless about this episodic finale. Nonetheless, Zemlinsky shows great imagination, both in terms of developing the material and in his diverse use of the orchestra. And, as in his D minor Symphony, he concludes in an audacious manner, combining the principal theme from the first and third movements with the finale’s dynamic ostinato.

The B flat major Symphony won the prestigious Beethoven Prize (financed by Brahms and sponsored by the Tonkünstlerverein), but it is a work firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. Certainly things were about to change, as Zemlinsky commented in 1922: ‘Then came a reaction, of course. With the struggle to find oneself, there was also an emphatic repudiation of Brahms. And there were periods when the reverence and admiration for Brahms metamorphosed into the very opposite.’ By 1899 Zemlinsky was already a close friend of the composer who was set to define the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg. When the Tonkünstlerverein rejected Schoenberg’s new string sextet Verklärte Nacht, Zemlinsky resigned from its board, realizing that his future lay not with the establishment but with the avant garde.

Despite these binding shifts in allegiance and musical character, Zemlinsky would forever be grateful for the education he had received at the Conservatory. Moreover, he always remembered what he had learned from Brahms, as a ‘phase of undervaluation gave way to a quiet reassessment and enduring love of Brahms’s work’. But such stylistic equanimity lay far in the future. A new century was at hand and time, music and language were shifting more rapidly than ever before, challenging the conservative hegemony of the nineteenth century. ‘To every age its art … to art its freedom’, as was emblazoned above the door to the new Secessionsgebäude. Listening to Zemlinsky’s two early symphonies we are afforded an auditory window into that thrilling period of change.

Gavin Plumley © 2014

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