Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Zemlinsky's two early "romantic" symphonies: Call them "muscle music"

Fifty years ago, as Gustav Mahler was becoming more “popular” after the work of Leonard Bernstein, his younger contemporary Alexander von Zemlinsky was overshadowed as a mystery figure, his “Lyric Symphony” viewed as a logical companion piece to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”.

Zemlinksy (despite the sound of his name) was born in Vienna and his career certainly fits into the history of “Viennese post-romanticism”.  Records International or Marco Polo had issued his first two symphonies on CD in the mid 1980’s, but the first symphony was missing a finale.

I ordered the EMI (“Angel”) recording (available from resellers on Amazon) with James Conlon conducting the “Gurzenich-Orchester Kolner Philharmoniker” in Cologne (or Koln), from 1998.

The Symphony #1 in D Minor (1892) was composed at age 20.  The first three movements are a bit workmanlike, but do anticipate the mood of Bruckner.  But it’s the “missing” finale that makes the work.  Starting at Moderato, the movement picks up with a catchy little march that I’ve heard before – in the movies I think.  Hollywood composers love to raid obscure post-romantic works (some of the Nachtmusik from Mahler’s seventh had shown up in scores well before the work was generally known and played after the 1960s).  There may be a theme like this in one of Dvorak’s early symphonies or Slavonic Dances.  The work does end in a fanfare of triumph.

In the video above, the familiar march theme occurs 31:09. 

The Symphony #2 in B-flat (1897) has been compared to the Brahms Fourth, and the work combines the harmonic and rhythmic manners of Bruckner and Brahms (if that can be imagined, particularly with the cross rhythms and syncopation) with a little folksiness from Dvorak.  The first movement ends with a grandiose coda that does predict Bruckner’s symphony in the same key.

The last movement is a rather declamatory passacaglia, inviting apt comparisons to the finale of the Brahms Fourth. 

I seem to remember that my “music friend” at William and Mary that lost semester of 1961 had said that B-flat was his least favorite key.
  

Nonetheless, these two symphonies are a “young man’s” music.  They reflect strength, muscularity, energy.  They make you see Bryce Harper running, rather than trotting, the bases after a home run. Reach for the "muscle milk". 
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