Wednesday 16 July 2014

Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy

Zemlinsky A Florentine Tragedy - LPO
Zemlinsky A Florentine Tragedy, Six Maeterlinck Songs; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 9 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling performances of two of Zemlinsky's major operatic and vocal works

Listening to Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy it is difficult to get Richard Strauss's Salome out of one's head, both the overheated plot and soundworld, and the common origins in Oscar Wild. Zemlinsky's opera dates from 1917, over 10 years too late (and with a world war to alter musical tastes). But the opera had great personal significance to Zemlinsky and the virtue of this thrilling new live recording from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra is the way the programme notes link the superbly dramatic performances to Zemlinsky's private life. And by including Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck Songs the thread of personal involvement is emphasised more.

Eine florentinische Tragodie Op.16 is performed by Heike Wessels (Bianca), Sergey Skorokhodov (Guido) and Albert Dohmen (Simone), whilst Petra Lang is the soloists in Zemlinsky's Six Maeterlinck Songs Op.13. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and the disc is released on the LPO's own label.

Both works are bound up in Zemlinsky's tortured relationship with Alma Schindler. Their brief, intense not-quite-affair was followed by Alma moving on to become Mrs Mahler (Mahler was not only more eminent, he was better looking than Zemlinsky whom Alma taunted with being gnome-like). Alma's subsequent infidelity with Walter Gropius only served to turn the screw in Zemlinsky's mind and in both the works on this disc you sense him working out his personal neuroses in his music.

Unfortunately personal crises do not necessarily make great music. The problem with A Florentine Tragedy is that it last nearly an hour and really only has a single story arc. The long process of attrition by which the merchant Simone (Albert Dohmen) gradually needles and gets his revenge on the aristocrat Guido (Sergey Skorokhodov) for his adultery with Simone's wife, Bianca (Heike Wessels). There is no sub-plot and precious little change of dramatic texture throughout the whole opera. The twist comes at the very end when, having killed Guido, Simone discovers that power is an aphrodisiac and the couple fall into each other's arms.

It is also a taxing work, the role of Bianca is underwritten and the work is effectively a dialogue for Guido and Simone. Albert Dolmen is outstanding as Simone, tireless without being too stentorian. He sings with firm flexible tones and a nice warmth. Sergey Skorokhodov is similarly tireless as Guido. His tenor has its monochrome side, but his emission is admirably even over the range and he copes with the tessitura, and has capacity for some nice erotic touches when the music allows.

The dialogue between the two develops in an edge of the seat tense manner. The drama is clearly nurtured by Vladimir Jurowski who paces the word admirably, letting it build gradually and never allowing things to slacken.

Heike Wessels does not have much to do as Bianca, but Wessels generates some nice tension with Guido in their one moment together. At other times she sounds a bit to mature and dark voiced. The ending is something of a disappointment as Zemlinsky gives little opportunity for the two soloists, concentrating on the orchestra.

The orchestra is very much a protagonist in the drama. Zemlinsky begins things with an impetuously luxuriant prelude which depicts the lovemaking of Guido and Bianca. Here Jurowski plunges straight in and the orchestra's playing is vividly erotic.  Throughout Zemlinsky colours, punctuates and informs the drama with orchestral material and Jurowski and the LPO certainly make this count. The orchestra is on terrific form, really bringing Zeminsky's rich sound world and Secessionist harmonies to life.

Zemlinsky's Six Maeterlinck Songs were written in 1910, the year Zemlinsky discovered Alma had had an affair with Walter Gropius, and the songs are related to this. The atmosphere is less luxuriant, more expressionist than the opera and the vocal line seems determinedly not lyric. There is a feeling of an uneasily wandering in the orchestral material and though the vocal line is expressive, it is certainly not comfortable.

I have never heard the songs before and they clearly need a large scale voice. Petra Lang is highly dramatic and very sympathetic, but there were moments when I would have liked a brighter toned timbre. These intense expressionist pieces are a world aware from Debussy's Maeterlinck settings, but no less a reflection of the rather allusive nature of the text.

The CD booklet has a full English text for the opera (but no German), and there are full texts and translations of the Maeterlinck (which is sung in German).

This is a fascinating disc with a pair of highly dramatic and still neglected works. In stunning performances from Vladimir Jurowsky, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and cast. Whatever you think about the ultimate worth of Zemlinsky's music, these performances cry out to be listened to.

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871 - 1942) - Eine florentinsche Tragodie (A Florentine Tragedy) Op.16 (1917) [54.37]
Alexander Zemlinsky (1871 - 1942) - Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op.13 (1910) [19.35]
Bianca - Heike Wessels (mezzo-soprano)
Guido - Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor)
Simone - Albert Dohmen (baritone)
Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor
Recorded live at the Festival Hall, 22 September 2010 and 26 September 2012
LPO  - 0078 1 CD [74.12]
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