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Like Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
was a composer whose main profession was conducting.
Mahler championed Zemlinsky’s works and led a 1900
performance of his second opera, “Es war einmal”
(Once Upon a Time), at the Court Opera in Vienna.
Zemlinsky met Arnold Schönberg in 1895, and became
his teacher and lifelong friend. In fact, Schönberg
married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, in 1901. At the
beginning of the 20th Century, Zemlinsky fell deeply in
love with Alma Schindler who would soon marry
Gustav Mahler.

I mention these facts to thereby illustrate the social
and musical ferment under which Zemlinsky conducted
and composed. Recently, I heard a two-CD set of all 67
of his songs, released under the Deutsche Grammophon
label. As the accompanist, conductor and arranger
Cord Garben indicated in his essay included with the set,
these Zemlinsky songs fall into two broad periods:
from 1894-96 to 1910-13, and from 1934 to 1937-38.
The style of the earliest songs and Zemlinsky’s other
music in general are reminiscent of works by
Johannes Brahms; however the influences of
Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler can also be detected.
At their best, these songs nevertheless demonstrate
Zemlinsky’s own distinctive voice.

The later songs from the 1930’s reveal a composer
who had embraced polytonality and the dissolution of
tonality; however, Zemlinsky never went as far along this
path as did Arnold Schönberg, who by then had developed
his twelve-tone system. The character of these later songs
is less romantic, reflecting many of the post World War I
changes occurring not only in music, but also in the other
arts. Exiled and living in America at the end of his life,
Zemlinsky wrote “Misery,” to a text by the African-American
poet, Langston Hughes, and it was sung in English!
Clearly, Zemlinsky was a changed man, which was
reflected in his music.

At their best, these songs are quite original, even great,
and the less-inspired ones are at least interesting.
What was never in doubt here was the care that went
into these quality performances, recorded in Munich
during 1988. The four singers included soprano
Barbara Bonney, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter,
tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz, and baritone Andreas Schmidt.
In my opinion, all of them sounded fantastic, with
special kudos going to Schmidt.

Some of the poems set to music by Zemlinsky included
works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Werfel,
Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Jens Peter Jacobsen,
Maurice Maeterlinck, and many others, including the
German folk poetry “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,”
which was also the basis for a song cycle by
Gustav Mahler. In a second essay, “About the Recording,”
Cord Garben described the detailed preparation
for this project, and he must be commended for
masterminding this enterprise. His accompanying
skills were also exemplary.

The recording engineers did a fine job here, and
the booklet of liner notes included complete texts
of the songs in French, German and English.
Fortunately since the 1980’s, much of Alexander
Zemlinsky’s music has also been recorded by others,
including conductor James Conlon, and this set was
an important addition to the Classical music catalogue.
I urge listeners to check out Zemlinsky’s music
whenever possible, and I give this two-CD set
the highest marks.

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