Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Zemlinsky
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Der Zwerg
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski, Iride Martinez, David Kuebler; Frankfurter Kantorei, Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra/James Conlon
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 66247 2
Based on Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta, Zemlinsky’s opera is seen by many as having parallels with the composer’s own fate at the hands of his pupil Alma Schindler; despite describing him as ‘chinless and short, with bulging eyes’ she briefly reciprocated his love before rejecting him in favour of Mahler.

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Indeed, as Zemlinsky himself acknowledged, ‘the libretto suits me unusually well’. Prepared by Georg Klaren, it develops the characters of both protagonists: the dwarf is transformed from Wilde’s natural monster into someone sensitive, genteel and gallant, while the infanta seems more capricious than horribly cruel.

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EMI’s is the first complete recording of Der Zwerg: the 1988 Koch issue was a studio recording of the abridged Hamburg Opera version, using a new text by Adolf Dresen that reverted to Wilde’s characterisation. The EMI set is well conducted, by James Conlon, and sung – with an outstanding contribution by the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski – but let down by a confined, boxy sound. Zemlinsky’s opulent and moving score – ‘wonderful music’ enthused Berg – deserves another recording. Deborah Calland