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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Zemlinsky and Berg

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews a new release by the Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony, featuring works by Zemlinsky and Berg.


ALEXANDER VON ZEMLINSKY: Lyric Symphony, op. 18.  Roman Trekel, baritone and Twyla Robinson, soprano; Houston Symphony conducted by Hans Graf.  ALBAN BERG: Three Pieces from Lyric Suite (arranged for string orchestra) (1929).  Graf and members of the Houston Symphony.  Naxos 8.572048.

This latest recording of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s symphonic treatment of Rabindranath Tagore poems is also the latest contribution to the discography of Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony. Zemlinsky, brother-in-law and mentor to Arnold Schoenberg, continued in the postromantic tonal style while pushing the borders of tonality more in line with Leonard Bernstein’s assertion that tonality is as natural and inevitable as the law of gravity.  Graf’s conception is bold, stark and tender where warranted, entirely in accord with the spirit of the music.  With several other recordings of this symphony and with conductors giving new attention to his symphonic works in the recording studio and the concert hall, Zemlinsky—who died in obscurity, after suffering several strokes, in Larchmont, New York in 1942 at the age of seventy—is finally coming into his own.

It is an auspicious posthumous comeback for a man who, as a journeyman, was admired by Brahms (not one to hand out compliments) and who, while still in his twenties, enjoyed his first fruitful professional successes.  The seven-movement work, presenting Tagore’s poems in German translation, provides a compelling vehicle for conductor, orchestra and soloists alike—early on in the forty-six-minute symphony, the consummate artistry of bass-baritone Roman Trekel is clearly in evidence; the pianissimo tone he achieves toward the end of the first movement (Ich bin friedlos  —  I am restless) reveals a stunning command of an exquisite vocal instrument.  Soprano Twyla Robinson makes a similarly heroic contribution to the overall success of this exceptional recorded performance.  Like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (which also uses Oriental poetry as its basis), the Lyric Symphony never presents the two vocal soloists as a duo.  Each has his or her own statement to make at different times.  The work dates from 1923, about a decade before Zemlinsky’s life—like the lives of many other German artists and intellectuals of Jewish heritage—was turned upside down. 

Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, originally for string quartet, quotes from the Lyric Symphony as well as from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and is dedicated to Zemlinsky.  Maestro Graf offers three movements of this suite in the composer’s version for string orchestra.  Strikingly, it is in this work — even more so than the Zemlinsky — that Graf’s gifts as a conductor emerge in their fullest light.  His command of the long line within the framework of a highly personalized command of the difficult and sometimes inflexible twelve-tone technique is one of those rare meetings of minds between composer and executant.  The strings of the Houston Symphony play beautifully for him.  Graf, a versatile musician with many centers of musical sympathy, provides handsome service for both composers; his persuasive account of the Berg could do much to get more people to listen to this music with their ears rather than with their prejudices. 

It is worth noting that Zemlinsky and the much more well-known Schoenberg never became alienated.  While Zemlinsky remained true to tonality, he was not active during his years in the United States.  It is also worth noting that Zemlinsky gave counterpoint lessons to the otherwise self-taught Schoenberg.  The more than symbolic gestures toward Zemlinsky in the Berg Suite are also worth taking notice of; more than the act of dedicating the work to Zemlinsky, Berg paid him the ultimate tribute by quoting him.