The growing (and justified) popularity of Alexander von Zemlinsky's luscious tone poem/symphonic fantasy since its resurrection from obscurity in 1984 hardly comes as a surprise. Premiered in 1902 at the same concert as Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, it treads a similar path to its more famous contemporary in its late-Romantic lushness and opulent writing. There's also a nod to Richard Strauss allied to a melodic accessibility that could have sprung from the pen of Korngold. It tells the familiar Hans Christian Andersen story of the Little Mermaid who trades her aquatic existence for that of a human one in order to win the heart of a prince. It's far more likely though that the melancholic passages which permeate much of the piece were brought on by the composer's grief at the loss his lover Alma Schindler to his rival Gustav Mahler.
Xian Zhang, whose conducting career has been going from strength to strength, skilfully avoided any tendency towards sentimentality, and each of the episodes (divided into three movements) depicting the Mermaid's journey were clearly recognisable. The LSO played with real passion, producing opulent tone and a richness of texture which fully brought out the colours of Zemlinsky's scoring. The natural use of rubato
paid dividends particularly in the final pages representing the Mermaid's agony in losing the man she loves, tenderly and movingly conveyed by the LSO strings.
The two pieces in the first half were equally impressive. The Suite from Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin was executed with metronomic precision but never seemed cold or clinical; instead Xian Zhang and the LSO captured perfectly an ugly world of seediness. The frenzied world of the urban jungle was appropriately conveyed by shrieking woodwind and rasping brass, the trombone glissandos depicting the prostitute's first client were deliciously vulgar. The ‘Chase’ was super-fast but control was never relinquished. Bartók's Suite ends before we get the really grisly stuff; a shame that we were denied that pleasure, just when things were getting really interesting!
Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto is from the same year as Mandarin (1926) but inhabits an entirely different sensibility. Gareth Davies was in fine form and the rapport between him and his fellow LSO musicians was obvious. The flute's passage is often and rudely interrupted by a bass trombone (Paul Milner), the only voice of discontent in an otherwise serene journey. This ping-pong dialogue was one of the highlights in a delightful rendition in which Davies explored every nuance with his sweet tone and nimble playing. Xian Zhang's dynamic and weighty accompaniment exposed the darker hues in what is ostensibly one of the lighter works of Nielsen's output.