Robert Cowan
February 2014

Considering that Alexander von Zemlinsky was in his twenties when he composed his two early symphonies, both works demonstrate an uncommon level of maturity. In most respects the music follows a fairly conservative German-orientated path but there are times when Dvorák creeps within earshot—the lilting Allegro scherzando of the D minor First Symphony, for example—though on the whole Brahms appears to be the major influence, especially in the thickly drawn contours of both slow movements. The B flat Second Symphony’s opening idea bears a close resemblance to the motif that opens Smetana’s First String Quartet, while the finale opens rather in the manner of Schumann. One could go on citing probable influences, Strauss and Reger being obvious contenders, but that would be to mask the issue, which is Zeminsky himself. 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). In his useful booklet-note, Gavin Plumley observes that there’s a hint of Mahler in Symphony’s scherzo, though the Adagio once again returns us to the world of Dvorakian yearning. 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 (Conlon is also excellent, if less refined), although masterpieces such as the Lyric Symphony and Sinfonietta were still some way off, both of them securely located at the other side of the fin de siecle. Another world, but you would need to know these works to fully understand how Zemlinsky reached it.