These finely crafted symphonies date from the 1890s, a period when Zemlinsky was musically in awe of Brahms. Although offering precious little hint at the change of style the composer would undergo at the turn of the century, they are nonetheless attractive works with some boldly structured movements. The D minor Symphony, whose first movement was performed at a concert attended by Brahms at the Vienna Conservatory in 1891, may be the less distinctive in terms of its thematic material. But there are certainly some impressive moments, particularly in the dramatic major/minor conflict of the opening movement, while the lyrical impulse of the Adagio is most affecting. Nevertheless, the B flat major Symphony, composed in 1897, the year when Brahms died, is altogether more compelling. Here Zemlinsky absorbs a wider range of musical influences, in particular Dvořák and Wagner in the first movement, and there are charming allusions to Mahler in the middle section of the Scherzo. The imaginative passacaglia Finale pays obvious homage to Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and builds up quite a head of steam in its thrilling coda.
Martyn Brabbins has a strong empathy for Zemlinsky’s musical language, demonstrating a masterly control of pacing in each movement. Perhaps in his Decca recording of the B flat Symphony, Riccardo Chailly offers a more highly charged view of the first movement, but elsewhere there is little to choose between the two performances. In any case, 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.