We all have a secret place we only share with the special people in our lives, maybe a secret restaurant in the Cinque Terre, a secret little church somewhere in Val di Chiana, a secret view of old industrial Chicago at a certain time near dusk, a secret konditorei in a little Voralberg town, a secret garden in the Isola del Giglio, a secret foggy little square in London that's still lighted in the nighttime -- dimly -- by gaslight.
We all have places and sounds and views that we hold dear to our hearts, that you can't share indiscriminately because the wrong people will just ruin it, somehow, for us too, because those places and sounds and views and flavors somehow seem too delicate -- too magic -- to be there just for anyone, and they're not, oh no they aren't.Alexander Zemlinsky's music is one of those secret places -- its delicate, deep beauty just resonates so much. And the debate's open on when exactly the twentieth century, as far as music is concerned, began -- on the night of "Salome"'s premiere, on the morning nerdy Arnold Schoenberg woke up on the atonal side of the bed, you name it -- what-ever.
For Opera Chic the twentieth century was born when Alex met Alma, and everything began.
There's a solid argument to be built around the fact that no composer as great as Zemlinsky has had to suffer the same kind of neglect, that no artist as great as poor sad Alexander has been mistreated the way he has had to endure, in the hour of his desperate penniless death and even after it.
Every once in a while, a few major conductors -- all men of personal generosity, it's interesting to notice -- give Zemlinsky's music the kind of treatment it deserves: the late wonderful Maestro Sinopoli's concerts, Riccardo Chailly's and our James Conlon's recordings of Zemlinsky's works. Still, his music remains somewhat obscure, his name almost always absent from most playbills of important orchestras.
Therefore, whenever Zemlinsky is played, it's a good day for classical music.
We just spent a Friday night with the New York Philharmonic, and while Gilbert is away, the Phils play -- and they play Zemlinsky.
In a concert that was originally supposed to herald Count Vlad Jurowski's New York debut, the young Russian conductor had mysteriously double-booked himself (he's currently in Torino performing with the Rai Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale and Radu Lupu). So while Jurowski is in Torino sampling delicious brioche & caffé espresso, Mr. Reliable Neeme Järvi stepped-in to cover the open slot. Not only a new conductor but a new program, too, as Matthias Pintscher's "towards Osiris "got the axe for its U.S. Fall 2009 debut and will premiere instead in March 2010.In a round of 4 nights, Järvi leads a Beethoven, Mozart, Zemlinsky program (ending on Tuesday) with Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony the headliner...all interconnected via a Prague influence of various and tenuous shades.
It opened with Beethoven, the overture of “The Creatures of Prometheus” (shorter version of the Greek myth: you play with matches, you get burned) When Zeus disposed of Prometheus by chaining him to a rock where he was to be eaten alive by an eagle, he might have thought of Järvi's interpretation -- this one literally felt like it was chained to that same eagle-feasting rock. He galloped along at a worthy pace, but in the end was a shallow, tensionless color that barely sparked Beethoven's fire.Next was Mozart's magic Prague Symphony, a half-hour foray by Järvi into soaring, polite Mozart -- the Prague is unique for the three compact movements, shelfing the critical fourth for compositional transitions instead. Järvi's slow and thoughtful tempi wrapped the orchestra in a thick, velvety swath -- an earthbound translation of Mozart's joyful manuscript. Adagio -- Alegro was preoccupied and absent minded, lacking the crackle and good nature of Mozart. Andante and the final Presto was much of the same: Järvi showed mastery of dynamics and pacing, but it never soared nor explored the infinte layers of the score nor captured the exultations of the Mozartian bubble.
Although he fizzled and plunked through the first half, Järvi's final Zemlinsky absolved the Estonian conductor of his former transgressions. Järvi's spot-on interpretation of Alexander Zemlinsky's "Lyric Symphony" was the highlight of the evening with its humongous instrumentation and ballZ-to-the-wall soloists. The Lyric Symphony in Seven Songs, after poems by Rabindranath Tagore from The Gardener, in Hans Effenberger’s 1914 German translation is structured in seven interrelated songs for baritone, soprano, and orchestra, running in a succinct, woven pattern without the aid of breaks. The work premiered in Prague for the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in 1924 to which Zemlinsky -- friend of Mahler, teacher to Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg, the latter later his bro-in-law (ungenerous Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde) found great success.
The work is greatly evocative of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde -- Das Lied predates the Lyric Symphony by at least a decade, but still hearkens greatly to Mahler's song cycle masterpiece: both evolve with half a dozen poems; an immense orchestral scoring; two alternating soloists; and are based on texts translated into German. On paper, yes, the two are similar, but Zemlinksy's savors a frilly depth with his seven gorgeous songs that soar on a more musical, operatic scale. The transitions are marked with such lovely and ethereal segues, scarily harmonious and intuitive. Colorful expressive passages are tinged with graceful foreshadowing.
It's quite obviously a masterpiece of the Twentieth Century, a work of ambition and greatness and awesome power -- incredibly, the New York Philharmonic had only played it once before, in 1979 under the baton of James Levine. Thirty years later, Swedish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto and our dear booming hulking self-loving American baritone Thomas Hampson were well-matched, never straying far from each other in alternating movements. Hampson's first movement, Ich bin friedlos, demands a deafening baritone entering after a breathless, rumbling, Asiatic-tinged overture. Blooming, billowing vocal lines soared over an intricate, gorgeous composition. Hampson mastered movement III's Du bist die Abendwolke with an introspective, melodic and thoroughly modern interpretation.
Swedish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto exercised a fabulous, solid voice, well-suited against both Hampson's professionalism and Lieder's stringent demands. Her first solo via Mutter, der junge Prinz was musical and muscled, but not overbearing. The music, as it is often the case with Alex's work, just shimmered there, in its greatness, not flaunting its beauty but simply allowing it to illuminate the night.
Come for Zemlinsky and stay for Zemlinsky -- this is a rare treat.