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Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1891) [8:03]
Sonata in A minor for Cello and Piano (1894) [27:33]
Trio in D minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano Op. 3 (1896) [28:44]
Othmar Müller (cello); Ernst Ottensamer (clarinet); Christopher Hinterhuber (piano)
rec. Liszt Hall, Raiding, Austria, 9-11 April 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570540 [64:21]


Experience Classicsonline

As Richard Whitehouse notes in the booklet, Zemlinsky was little more than a name in the record catalogue thirty years ago and is now heavily represented on discs in every area of his musical production. This disc contains chamber works from the 1890s showing a young man who already has an assured technical equipment and is proceeding to get out from under the shadow of the all-powerful Brahms.

The Three Pieces for Cello and Piano are among the earliest works we have from Zemlinsky. At the same time they are almost new as they were lost for over a century, along with the Cello Sonata, until rediscovered by the cellist Raphael Wallfisch in his father’s effects. All three are still heavily Brahmsian, but the Lied shows some individuality and an ability for development that would continue in the later works. The Humoreske is not quite as important, but is very winning and shows good thematic contrast. I found the Tarentell less interesting. 

The Cello Sonata dates from three years later (1894) and like the Three Pieces was prepared by Zemlinsky authority Antony Beaumont. It is quite substantial, even weighty, and shows a good deal of progress over the 1891 work. The opening allegro has an expression marking of mit liedenshaft, but there is also a more modern undercurrent of agitation. The second theme is calmer and again Zemlinsky shows his ability to provide thematic contrast. The andante movement starts out in a more poetic fashion, but turbulence returns with the middle section, which at the same time contains some beautiful writing for the cello. The theme of the first section returns for something of a fusion of the moods of what has gone before. The concluding allegretto is cheerful and witty and was the first time I was reminded of some aspects of the mature Zemlinsky. Again the composer’s ability at thematic contrast is to the fore but there is also more distinction in the development itself. As in the second movement, the last part is ruminative, even a little sad. 

Later in 1894 Zemlinsky actually met Brahms and the senior composer voiced some criticism of the younger’s “modernity” as evidenced in the Cello Sonata and other works. Zemlinsky seemed to accept the criticisms and produced the Clarinet Trio in 1896. However, except for the Brahmsian forces it shows no going back in Zemlinsky’s progress; yet at the same time it was approved of by Brahms. In the Trio the harmony in the first movement is quite distinctive and there is a lovely weaving around the clarinet by the two other players. Contrapuntal interest grows throughout the movement and so does the emotional intensity towards the end. The andante reminds one of the Cello Sonata in its alternation of lyricism and agitation. The final allegro is quite compact. The first theme pays tribute to Brahms in a way we haven’t seen up to now; it sounds like one of the Hungarian Dances. More relaxed ideas follow and again there is some harmonic experimentation, and some fine writing for the clarinet, before a slightly surprising ending.

For me the real star on this disc is Ernst Ottensamer. He shows himself to be a fine technician as well as being able to handle all the harmonic subtleties of the well-known Trio. Christopher Hinterhuber is also to be commended for his ability to both blend in with and stand out from the others. Othmar Müller impressed me less than the others though he was able to get a great variety of emotions from the Cello Sonata. Part of the blame may be due to the Raiding Hall which I felt greatly interfered with the cello’s projection and added dryness to the sound of all the instruments.

William Kreindler


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