ZEMLINSKY: Cymbeline Suite. Frühlingsbegräbnis. Ein Tanzpoem.
Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne; James Conlon, cond.; Düsseldorf State Chorus; Deborah Voigt (soprano), David Kuebler (tenor), Donnie Ray Albert (baritone).
EMI Classics 56474 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:00

This is the tepid third installment in what threatens to be another complete Zemlinsky from James Conlon, whose power base since 1989 has been Cologne. One says "threatens" because Gerd Albrecht's ongoing series shared by Capriccio and Koch International is surely enough for one generation of listeners. Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born in Vienna three years before Schoenberg, who became both his pupil and his brother-in-law, and likewise died in the U.S., driven from Europe by the Nazis' racial purge.

From the turn-of-the-century through the Weimar and Dolfuss republics, Zemlinsky conducted (in Vienna, Prague and Berlin) and taught (not only Schoenberg but Alma Schindler, later Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, whom he seduced), all the while composing copiously. But a Mahler he wasn't, and his music remained relatively unknown until Austro-Germans began searching for tie-lines with Brahms, to and beyond the between-wars crop of minor-league composers who survived Hitler's bloodline-hounds (e.g. Egk, Blacher, Orff, u.s.w. ).

The breakthrough came with A Lyric Symphony. Typically too-long, this song-cycle á la Mahler transported me East of Eden until I heard Michael Gielen's gripping exposition on Arte Nova last year, the hottest bargain in a mushrooming Zemlinsky discography. What we have here, though, is an hour-and-a- quarter of vanilla-music, put to shame if not to the sword by Humperdinck, Schreker, Korngold, even Pfitzner among other post-Wagnerian colleagues committed to tonality.

Consider while you listen—if you listen—that Richard Strauss was only seven years older than Zemlinsky. He outlived Z-z-z-z by seven years; and even during doldrums that lasted a couple of decades, outcomposed him virtually piece by piece. They admired the same librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, on whose unfinished ballet Der Triumph der Zeit, Zemlinsky based the 1904 "Dance Poem" that concludes this CD. The sound recorded in concert has little depth, is rather dry and coarse, versing on blowzy. Good orchestra, good chorus, good soloists, and dedicated conducting—but not in Gielen's class, interpretively—add up to sound but no fury, signifying very little.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)