Richard Whitehouse
International Record Review
March 2014

Zemlinsky’s symphonies both come from his formative years and are not so much precocious as incremental in their achievement. The past two decades have witnessed several recordings, though this is only the second time that they have been collated on to one disc: testament to the symphonic credentials of a composer whose ambitions were first and foremost operatic.

Neither piece came to represent its composer to even a grudging posterity. The Symphony in D minor (1893) was thought to lack a complete finale until the early 1990s, when separate sources were combined and found to be lacking only a single bar. This was fortunate as the work, while hardly a revelation, is a fine example of a student piece which (to paraphrase Hans Keller) deals with the conceptual background as opposed to the foreground. Martyn Brabbins takes the initial Allegro relatively swiftly, though this is not to the detriment of its elegant second theme (1'06"), while the development (4’51") has a keen rhetorical surge and the coda (8'45") a resigned finality. The scherzo is buoyant and even blithe in its progress, enabling the lilting trio (1'51") to emerge more readily. Brabbins reserves greatest emphasis for the slow movement, whose rapt eloquence is cunningly offset by the agitated central episode (2'27") before being heightened on its return and then by an extended coda (5'51") which draws elements of both themes into an easeful unity. As to the finale, Brabbins has the measure of both its inquisitive and playful (Bizet-like?) main themes—broadening effectively for the return of the former (4'24") as it elides into a subtly modified reprise and then into a coda (6'12") that once more brings both themes into engaging accord as the work heads towards its resolute conclusion.

The Symphony in B flat (1897) is scarcely less fine. By this point, Zemlinsky had raised his sights accordingly and the work breathes a notably Brahmsian (as opposed to Schumannesque) air. That Brabbins renders the first movement’s introduction a little too portentously is no bad thing, but the main Allegro (3'30") needs greater impetus if its motivic prolixity is to he held in check. The ingratiating second theme (4'51") is effortlessly done, but the lengthy development (9'33") hangs fire so the climactic transition into the reprise (11'51") lacks fervency and the coda (15'21") arguably fails to clinch the overall design. There is little to fault in the second movement, a moderately paced and appealingly deadpan scherzo whose animated second theme is the basis of a swaying trio (3'51") which returns transformed in the evocative coda (8'09"). The Adagio is the highlight here—its suave main theme is touchingly rendered by the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and its tempestuous central span (3'15") effortlessly drawn into what follows; the coda (8'18") then bringing a frisson of contentment.

Taking its cue from the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the finale is a methodical (though hardly textbook) passacaglia, its 26 variations falling into five groups whose formal dexterity is overly reined-in by Brabbins’s evening-out of tempos though the speculative central sequence (4'39") has just the right inward intensity, while those forming the coda (9'15") make for an apotheosis whose heroic transforming of the ‘motto’ theme is pointedly undercut by the nonchalant closing bars.

As to the comparisons, James Conlon directs considered if more deliberate accounts (observing neither first-movement exposition repeat) that are worth considering, while Anthony Beaumont offers a more agile account of the D minor and also one of the B flat that is the finest yet of that masterpiece manqué—though their appearance on separate discs with other of the composer’s ‘symphonic’ works makes for an admittedly more expensive option. Those wanting just 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.