This new recording competes very favourably with the two earlier
Chandos recordings of Die Seejungfrau. The first of these
was by Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Radio Symphony
Orchestra on CHAN 9601. That disc also included the Sinfonietta.
The second and more recent outing was the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s
recording conducted by Antony Beaumont CHAN 10138. This had Zemlinsky’s
Symphony in D minor as a coupling. When I reviewed
Beaumont’s 2003 recording I wrote that although it is powerful
enough, I preferred Chandos’s original 1997 recording, the more
relaxed, more poetic, yet exciting view of Dausgaard.
The attractiveness and accessibility of Zemlinsky’s Fantasy
has ensured its increasing popularity. It is extraordinarily evocative
music - wonderfully tuneful. Little wonder that Zemlinsky influenced
Korngold’s use of luscious orchestration.
Zemlinsky started work on Die Seejungfrau a few days before
the wedding of the woman he loved, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler.
He was devastated and it was years before he recovered from the
blow. Clearly, The Mermaid’s story of rejected love had profound
autobiographical significance at this time. Zemlinsky confided
in Schoenberg that the work was actually a preliminary study for
a projected ‘Symphony of Death’ that was never written. The composition
is based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. On the seabed
the mermaid becomes obsessed with the notion of becoming immortal
by winning the love of a mortal. After she has saved the life
of a prince from a shipwreck, she takes a magic potion to enable
her to take human form in order to win the prince. But the price
she has to pay to the sea-witch, who gives her the potion, is
the loss of her tongue. Consequently the poor mermaid has to watch
mute as her Prince marries a princess. Devastated, and in her
agony, she plans to kill the prince in his sleep but at the last
moment she throws away her knife and returns to the sea where,
in her renunciation, she is transformed into foam and borne away
on the wind as a spirit of the air.
The work, conceived in the grand Late-Romantic tradition, is scored
for a large orchestra. Influences of Richard Strauss, especially,
and Tchaikovsky are clear. There is atmospheric
material for the opening scene on the seabed, powerfully evocative
music for the storm that shipwrecks the prince, erotic, voluptuous,
perfumed music for the mermaid’s dreaming of love and immortality
and of yearning and sweet devotion for her unresponsive prince.
Judd’s reading is sumptuously evocative of the sea in its calm
and stormy turbulence; and fully committed to the work’s heart-rending
emotional drama. The Fantasy, as conceived by Zemlinsky, is more
concerned with thematic development than literal ‘mickey-mousing’
evocations. The Naxos sound engineering is first class too.
Sinfonietta of 1934 is quite a different matter. Three
decades after The Mermaid Zemlinsky was on a much more
astringent path, one closer to that trodden by Stravinsky,
Mahler and Hindemith. The style and elegance of Zemlinsky’s
old Vienna was fast disappearing. Here there is a much spikier
outlook, a sardonic tread to the music, an air of disillusion.
Bitter, ironic wit is juxtaposed with the occasional nostalgic
backward-glancing, sweet lyricism – all tinged with heavy
poignancy. Brutality jostles dreaming. Judd probes deeply
into this extraordinary work’s fatalism and disenchantment.
the Dausgaard Chandos recording remains my first choice, I
would not like to be without this terrifically exciting and
evocative new album by the New Zealand Orchestra. At super
bargain price it has to be irresistible.