Monday, 17 January 2011

Eschenbach Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony - why it's tops

Thinking again about Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, pulled out the Eschenbach recording again and it still gives me goosebumps. It was the first recording to use Anthony Beaumont's revised edition based on the manuscript, as opposed to what was previously published. This alone gives it an edge over the nearest contender, Riccardo Chailly (and Eschenbach's soloists are the best in the business). Because it's the smallish Capriccio and not one of the Big Bucks labels, it doesn't get the marketing it deserves. Anway here's what I wrote about the recording when it came out fresh. If anything, my admiration has deepened with time.

"It's groundbreaking because it's informed by recent discoveries about Zemlinsky and his style. Anthony Beaumont is the most perceptive of Zemlinsky scholars. His research into Zemlinsky's ideas and methods resulted in a complete re-edition of the score, revealing its true, lucid beauty.

In the 1920’s, Tagore was wildly popular in progressive circles because his rejection of materialism ran counter to the values of the time. Remember, India was still a colony. Embracing Tagore's spirituality was a kind of liberation. By using Tagore as the basis of this symphony, Zemlinsky is doing more than adopting pseudo-oriental exoticism. He knew what Tagore represented. He's not looking backward, but forward.

This performance shows with penetrating clarity just how imaginative Zemlinsky’s writing was. No muddy meandering here. Eschenbach and his soloists have thought the whole symphony through. This is an interpretation with vivid insights, gained not only from the score itself, but informed by an understanding of the music of his time.

Thus those rich drum rolls that lead into the symphony announce things to come, as drum rolls should be – quite literally a “curtain raiser” for a cosmic adventure. Immediately, refreshingly clear brass introduce the three note figure that recurs in myriad guises through the whole symphony. Then, softly, out of the orchestra, the baritones voice enters, quietly but with intense depth and feeling. “Ich bin friedlos” (a variant of the three note figure). Goerne is just over forty, still not at the peak of his powers, and yet it’s hard to imagine any singer delivering such authority and nuance to these words. The way he curls his voice around the vowels is utterly delicious – Meine Seele schweift in Sensucht, den Saum der dunkeln Weite zu berühten. You don’t need a word of German to enjoy the richness of his tone.

Berühten, becalmed. Yet this music is anything but listless. It reflects the overwhelming “thirst” in the text for distant, unknown horizons and the “Great Beyond”. Goerne sings Ich bin voll Verlangen with eagerness, then shapes the next words “und wachsam” with warm, rounded, sensuality. It’s delicious to hear two different, but valid feelings, in the space of a few seconds. Make no mistake, this music is about seeking, striving for something yet unknown, which grows from a pool of stillness.

A lovely skittish violin solo introduces the second movement. Schäfer’s voice with its pure, light quality expresses youth better than most of the sopranos who’ve sung this part. She may sound almost breathless with excitement, but she’s far too assured a singer to lose the musical line, Mutter, der junge…. the vowels underline each other., opening out. For the first time we hear an almost Bergian leap in the voice, when Zemlinsky decorates the line Zieg mir, wie soll mein Haar… Both the image and the sudden leap will recur later in the symphony. For the moment, Schäfer colours it with warmth, as though blossoming into womanhood before our ears. The music illustrating the exotic procession is one of the rare overtly “oriental” touches Zemlinsky indulges in. In the tumultuous postlude, the full orchestra surges forth, complete with drums and cymbals, yet the echoes of the three note theme gradually assert themselves as the soprano song blends seamlessly into the next baritone entry. There’s no narrative, we never discover how the girl and prince meet, if they do at all. The erotic tension and waves of sound owe much to Wagner, but also to Berg and Schoenberg. Goerne’s singing in the third movement is some of the most beautiful in the whole symphony. It is quite breathtakingly sensitive and nuanced. Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, he repeats, each time with intense, but nuanced feeling. These notes, too, are repeated throughout the symphony.

The fourth movement, expands the symphony into new territory. Again, an exquisite violin solo sets the mood, which deepens with cellos and violas. Schäfer’s voice cleanly rings out Spricht’s du mir Speak to me! The line here is tender, yet also discordant, with frequent sudden leaps in pitch which are decidedly modern. So, too, is the indeterminate tonality, creating at once lushness and unreality. The music seems to hover as if it were the stuff of dreams and unconscious. It’s atmospheric, pure chromatic impressionism. There are murmurs of Spricht’s du mir, and again the painfully beautiful violin, and sinister, dark woodwind. This song is sensual, but it’s no excuse for sentimental indulgence, and the orchestra plays with well judged reticence. . It is, after all, a movement about the silence of intimacy. Nur die Bäume werden im Dunkel flüstern (only the trees will whisper in the dark),

The fanfare with which the fifth movement starts seems to drive away the strange mood that had prevailed before. It may seem relatively conventional music but this is emotionally amorphous territory. When the sixth movement starts, there’s no mistaking the modernism here. Horn and bass clarinet inject a darker, discordant mood. Schäfer’s extensive experience in new music means she copes effortlessly with those sudden tonal swoops while still keeping sensual beauty. She makes “mein gierigen Hände” sound genuinely eager. This is Ewartung, minus the harsh dementia, and all the more complex for that. The mood is rocked by rhythmic melody, as the singer becomes aware Träume lassen sich nicht eingefangen (dreams can’t be made captive). Only then does the voice rise in horror, punctuated by a single, fatal drumstroke. Has it all been an illusion ? It’s not clear, nor on what level, but that’s what makes it so intruiging. Zemlinsky wisely leaves the ideas floating. Instead, he lets the music segue, mysteriously, into the final movement.

This final song is full of interpretative possibilities. The protagonist accepts that the affair is at an end, yet is dignified and positive. Lass es nicht eine Tod sein, sondern Vollendung (let it not be a death, but completeness). Even love is sublimated in creative rebirth. Lass Liebe in Erinn’rung schmelzen und Schmerz in lieder. Let love ache and melt in memory, in song. The dignified calm with which Goerne sings confirms that the protagonist has reached that “Great Beyond” he sang of in the first movement and has found the horizons he sought.. This time, the violin returns, playing a sweet, plaintive melody. while the orchestra echoes the word Vollendung, Vollendung. Then there’s another transition. A warmer note, like a breeze, enters on the strings, and the wavering halftones resolve from minor, gradually, to major. With infinite depth , Goerne sings that last phrase Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir auf deinen Weg zu leuchten. I hold my lamp up high to light your way. .Lovers must part, for life has a higher purpose. “zu leuchten” is sung with such goodwill, that you feel that whoever embarks on the next phase will be going armed with knowledge and faith gained by those who care enough to light them on their way. The postlude is led by a distant woodwind, a reference to the flute that called in the very beginning of this journey. There are echoes, too, of the Du bist mein Eigen theme, emphasizing the sense of fulfilment. Gradually the wavering half tones resolve, and the music moves from minor to major, concluding in another shimmering plane of colour. .

Anthony Beaumont, in his analysis of the symphony, said “often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work. In performance, the score requires Mozartian grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty and power only if performed with discipline and cool headed restraint”. Eschenbach recognizes its profoundly spiritual qualities, keeping the textures clear, letting them shimmer through unsullied. It’s the very purity of the orchestral playing that sheds light on the dynamics of the scoring. The soloists voices complement each other perfectly, and are in turn complemented by the elegance of the orchestral sound."

Lots more on the Lyric tymphony, Zemlinsky, Etc on this site, please explore.

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