Movement 1: Sostenuto – Allegro (Schnell, mit Feuer und Kraft)
Movement 2: Nicht zu schnell (Scherzando)
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Moderato
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.’
from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2014