Zemlinsky: Sinfonietta, Op. 23

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COMPOSERS: Zemlinsky
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Sinfonietta, Op. 23; Die Seejungfrau – Symphonic Fantasy
PERFORMER: New Zealand SO/James Judd
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570240

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Zemlinsky’s symphonic fantasy Die Seejungfrau, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale about a mermaid who sacrifices her own life after being rebuffed by a prince with whom she has fallen in love, is one of the most sumptuously scored orchestral pieces of the early 20th century.

Premiered in Vienna in 1905 alongside Schoenberg’s equally extravagant symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, it fell victim to the composer’s highly self-critical state of mind and languished in complete obscurity until its rediscovery in the 1980s, well over 40 years after Zemlinsky’s death. 

If this new Naxos recording doesn’t quite offer the luminous and spectacular warmth of the pioneering Decca recording under Riccardo Chailly, which alas is currently available, it nonetheless is a fine achievement.

James Judd certainly galvanises the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra into playing this challenging score with sensitivity and a good deal of virtuosity. Judd has a far better grip on the structure and direction of the music than the comparatively less focused version from James Conlon conducting the Cologne Orchestra on EMI. 

One slight disadvantage of the current release, however, is the recording itself which sounds somewhat hollow during the full-blooded climaxes. This factor is less crucial to the later Sinfonietta where Zemlinsky tends to opt for a harsher orchestral texture in which Mahlerian influences join forces with a percussiveness reminiscent of Stravinsky and Hindemith.

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Judd’s performance is particularly good in the helter-skelter finale, though Antony Beaumont and Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Nimbus convey even more bite and forward momentum in the opening movement. Erik Levi