Sunday, January 19, 2014

Zemlinsky: "Little Mermaid" and Stravinsky "Nightingale", based on Hans Christian Andersen

The New York Philharmonic performed two works based on stories (fairy tales) by 19th Century "Renaissance Man" Hans Christian Andersen.
One of these was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Song of the Nightingale” (“Chant du rossignol”), adapted from the composer’s own obscure opera, although skipping the first part. The work is quite dissonant (even more so that Rite of Spring, despite composition from 1913-1917), and has some pseudo-oriental  melodies resembling the male bird’s mating song, before the mechanical nightingales take over.  The last part of the piece deals with the illness, recovery, and then passing and funeral of the opera of China. This piece was popular on Washington DC station WGMS in the 1950s, with editor Paul Hume.
After intermission, the featured work was Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Little Mermaid” (“Die Seejungfrau”), composed in 1902-1903, when the composer was in his early 30’s. The music mixes styles: Liszt, Wagner, Wunderhorn-era Mahler, with a sprinkle of impressionism than seems odd.  At times the music anticipates the first part of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” was well as his own Pelleas et Mellisande.  The work is in three movements, with the first movement discovered only years after Zemlinsky’s death.  It could be viewed as a symphony, which would make it #3, in A Minor (41 minutes). 
The first movement (Molto moderato) evokes the mermaid’s ocean life and starts as a slow movement but becomes more agitated, and turns into a complex Sonata allegro.  At the end of the second subject, Zemlinsky introduces a paraphrase from stirring melody from the second movement of Tchaikowsky’s Symphony #5, but here the effect is quite different.  He refers to the melody several times in the work later.  The first movement ends quietly in the Picard major.  The second movement is a wild scherzo, but it stops and starts a lot, with frenzied tonal modulations (I think the basic key was F).  The finale seems rather like the first movement, and the whole work ends quietly in a remote key of E-flat (reminding me of the end of the Brahms Third in F), as the mermaid accepts the idea she cannot become human and have the prince as a husband.  He is done with her, and gone on to a real woman.  I guess humans and dolphins can’t mate.

The Disney animated film franchise (1989 on) has the mermaid more successful, able to match humans with aliens, I guess, if you look at it that way.

The first half of the concert was rounded out with the Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, K 191, by W A Mozart, with Judith Leclair, soloist.  I have a Parliament record of this paired with Mozart’s Violin Concerto #4. The second movement has a sudden modulation that anticipates Mozart’s later daring experiments.  The finale is a simple minuet.  The dynamic range of the performance was limited.

A saxophone player (simulating Bill Clinton) was playing he opening theme of this in Hades for money!

Andrey Boreyko conducted the concert.  He doesn't think like Putin, I hope.  

The concert was preceded by a lecture by Arbie Orenstein, professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Scores from all three works were available, as was the conclusion of the Mahler First (first movement). 

Note also: At the Riverside Church in NYC on Jan. 19, the choir sang a setting of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's Irish Rhapsody #1, "Danny Boy".  My favorite among those is the Fourth.  

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