Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau; Symphonic Songs

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COMPOSERS: Zemlinsky
WORKS: Die Seejungfrau; Symphonic Songs
PERFORMER: Ortrun Wenkel (contralto)South-West RSO Baden-Baden/Zoltán Peskó, Vaclav Neumann
Avant-garde, going places — at the turn of the century Zemlinsky was a rising star. His orchestral tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid, 1902-3), originally intended as a model for an ambitious ‘Death Symphony’, is a colourful representation of a fairytale by Andersen, involving a storm at sea, an underwater ball, a sea-witch and the mermaid fatefully and hopelessly in love with a prince. With a vocabulary drawn from Mahler and an orchestra of Straussian dimensions, Zemlinsky also captures a deliberately superficial quality in the sugary, but wistful sea ball. All this Pesko achieves admirably – a serious rival to Chailly on Decca.


Awe-struck by Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, premiered at the same concert as Die Seejungfraum 1905, Zemlinsky was conscious of being left standing, and from then on his works absorbed new musical trends, rather than creating them. Unlike Schoenberg, however, Zemlinsky was receptive to the incursion of jazz in the 1920s, and the Symphonic Songs show him tentatively exploring elements of this idiom. Slim textures, ostinati (repeated figures) and a feeling for the macabre nevertheless give way to the Romanticism which Zemlinsky never really abandoned, seen in the opening of’Erkenntnis’. Formally and atmospherically the most successful of these songs is ‘Afrikanischer Tanz’ with Ortrun Wenkel at her most seductive. Deborah Calland