Concert review

Zemlinsky Es war einmal... RFH 6th October 1999; BBCSO cond. Sir Andrew Davis, with soloists.

Performances of the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky in this country are few and far between, so it was heartening to have the chance to hear a concert performance of his second opera, 'Es war einmal...' ('Once Upon a Time'). A fairy tale written at the turn of the century, this is hardly repertoire one associates with Sir Andrew Davis - however, the by-turns delightful and passionate score clearly won the hearts of the BBCSO, who seemed alive to the piece's chameleon-like changes of mood.

Zemlinsky, at least until fairly recently, was most famous as Schoenberg's teacher and brother-in-law. Since the 1970s performances and recordings of his works have slowly grown in frequency, introducing us to some very powerful late-Romantic music. 'Es war Einmal' was the Vienna Court Opera's first new production of the 20th century, conducted by Gustav Mahler, who also made revisions and composed part of the end of Act 1.

It is perhaps too easy to spend one's time spotting influences and quotes - the ghost of Wagner looms large, incidentally in the Princess' Ladies-in-Waiting exchanges in Act 1 (very much spatially-transposed Flower Maidens) and more graphically in the Heldentonor role of the Prince, admirably sung by Glenn Winslade. Rather, the compositional virtuosity of Zemlinsky is that far from appearing a patch-work opera, 'Es war Einmal' comes over as a wholly cogent and convincing piece.

The star of the performance was without doubt Christine Brewer, a soprano endowed with an evocative, musty mezzo-like tone in the lower registers and no shortage of power in the higher ones. Donald Maxwell was a distinctive King, Alan Opie a characterful Kaspar. It was refreshing also, to hear excellent contributions in the minor parts, most notably from Jonathan Veira. A most important performance.

Zemlinsky operas on CD:
Es war einmal... Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Hans Graf (Capriccio 60019);
'The Birthday of the Infanta' Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Albrecht with Kenneth Riegel and Inga Nielsen (Koch Schwann CD314 013H1)

Colin Clarke

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