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Zemlinsky: Symphony In B Flat, Sinfonietta / Beaumont, Czech Philharmonic

Release Date: 06/29/2004 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 10204   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor:  Antony Beaumont
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

The 26-year-old Zemlinsky wrote this symphony in 1897; it won Vienna’s most important prize, which tells us that it conformed to standards and met expectations. Here is a brilliant student imitating his masters: Dvo?ák in the opening Sostenuto-Allegro, the Scherzo, and the first half of the Adagio, when Siegfried arrives with his horn call. In a confused finale, the variations from Brahms Fourth go awry. The orchestration is predictably fine but has not yet the shining elegance that would consistently flow from his pen in the years to follow. Despite its lack of originality, the work is so tuneful, so vigorous, and so well written that it comes close to being a first-rate symphony, at least until the finale. Riccardo Chailly, James Read more Conlon, and now Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky mavens all, have contributed sterling performances on disc. Chailly is the lightest, giving an István Kertész-like performance; Conlon is heavy and dark; Beaumont is forceful and dynamic, in the spirit of Rafael Kubelík. All three orchestras are superb, but Beaumont’s Czech Philharmonic, with its colorful, rustic-sounding winds, is the best; it certainly emphasizes the Dvo?ák connection. Conlon omits the exposition repeat, which doesn’t matter much in this huge, rich opening movement. Chailly eases the awkwardness of the finale by bulldozing his way through it, but at the cost of making it sound even more pompous. Conlon tiptoes through it, as if trying to hide the music’s weakness. Beaumont plays it straight, warts and all, allowing us to hear what Zemlinsky was trying to do.

This Chandos recording, set down by Nimbus in 2001 for that now-defunct label, is glorious, capturing the unusual acoustics of Prague’s Rudolfinum, warm yet with a dryness that prevents the smudging of details. Chailly’s Decca recording is in that company’s classic mode, sweet and reverberant, so lovely that one forgives its lack of detail. Conlon’s EMI recording is equally reverberant, with fewer mitigating virtues. EMI gives us the 1892 D-Minor Symphony on the same disc; Decca’s coupling is Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23. Beaumont has recorded the earlier symphony twice, most recently with the Czech Philharmonic on a Chandos CD/SACD pair of discs. Three Chandos CDs, or three EMI, will bring you Zemlinsky’s five major symphonic works: the two early symphonies, the Lyric Symphony, the Sinfonietta, and the symphonic poem The Mermaid.

So, a treasurable disc already, but there’s another half hour to come! The 1899 Prelude to the opera Es war einmal represents the mature Zemlinsky, now his own man, and has the fine polish that makes his orchestral sound so unique. This recording is the first to restore a huge cut—roughly a third of the score—made by Mahler for the opera’s Vienna premiere.

With the Sinfonietta we jump to 1934 and a 62-year-old composer. In place of expansive Romantic gestures, we now find agitated nervous energy in the Presto opening, searing anguish in a somber Ballade, and a Rondo finale that recalls the opening. The writing is taut and virtuosic, the scoring brilliant. This is his orchestral masterpiece, free from the imitative padding of the early symphonies and the longueurs of the highly regarded Lyric Symphony. The Presto is so filled with Erich Korngold’s musical monogram (which, according to Beaumont, the young student may have found in his teacher’s Kleider machen Leute) that it sounds as close to Korngold as to Zemlinsky. Beaumont plays the Sinfonietta much faster than Conlon (18:37 to 22:35), although without the “scorching intensity” (Beaumont) of Mitropoulos’s 1940–41 performances with the New York Philharmonic, which took about 16 minutes.

Zemlinsky was at his peak in the mid 1930s; his great opera Der Kreiderkreis preceded the Sinfonietta by a year, and Der König Kandaules followed in 1936. The orchestration for this final opera—rejected by the Metropolitan in 1938 because it includes a nude scene—was completed by Beaumont, and this Prelude to act III demonstrates what a superb job he did. Dark, threatening music, a portent of the tragedy about to evolve on stage, it has a dramatic power unusual even for Zemlinsky. Once again the playing of the great Czech orchestra is stupendous, and the 2003 Chandos recording immense.

Beaumont’s program notes are authoritative and revealing: it was Zemlinsky’s widow Louise who specified that the symphonies be identified by key signature rather by number, to avoid confusions caused by an incomplete 1891 work. Although you can’t go wrong with any of the discs discussed above, this may be the best of them all.

James H. North, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in B flat major by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor:  Antony Beaumont
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1897; Vienna, Austria 
Sinfonietta, Op. 23 by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor:  Antony Beaumont
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; Vienna, Austria 
Der König Kandaules: Act 3 Prelude by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor:  Antony Beaumont
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Es war einmal: Act 1 Prelude by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor:  Antony Beaumont
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1900; Austria 
Notes: Composition written: Vienna, Austria (1897 - 1899). 

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