Zemlinsky Lost and Found

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

A one-day conference on the life and music of Alexander Zemlinsky, in association with the Alexander Zemlinsky Fonds
Department of Music, Middlesex University, Trent Park, London

Wednesday 11 October 2006


Three Short Pieces [UK premiere]

Cello Sonata [UK premiere]


As You Like It – Suite


Cello Sonata

Raphael Wallfisch (cello) & John York (piano)

Recital Room, The Orangery, Middlesex University, Trent Park, London

Wednesday 11 October 2006

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) is a composer not unfamiliar to British audiences these days, even though only two of his eight operas have received a professional staging in the UK, and his orchestral, chamber and vocal music remains at the periphery of their respective repertoire. A good move, then, on the part of Middlesex University to host a one-day conference on the composer’s life and music – especially as set in the attractive environment of Trent Park on the outskirts of North-East London.

The conference was divided into four sessions, with refreshment breaks as appropriate. Session One opened with Shoko Hino (University of Missouri, Kansas City) examining the stylistic traits of the Four Fantasies after Richard Dehmel, followed by her highly capable performance of these at the piano. Peter Fribbins (Head of Music, University of Middlesex) considered the technical and expressive links between the First and Fourth String Quartets, then Pamela Tancsik (University of KwaZulu, Natal) gave many insights into Zemlinsky’s conducting of contemporary opera during his years in Prague.

Session Two began with a lecture by Steven Vande Moortele (University of Leuven/F.W.O. Flanders) on the significance of the Second String Quartet in the context of continuously-unfolding sonata form stretching back at least to Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata. The singer Jane Manning (University of Kingston) then made a forthright case for the wider performance of Zemlinsky’s Lieder – as of other early 20th-century composers who made notable contributions to the genre; continuing with performances of “Six Waltz Songs” and “Six Maeterlinck Songs”, ably accompanied by Terence Albright, before ending with Frank Bridge’s “What shall I your true love tell?” to underline harmonic connections between the composers.

Session There opened with twenty minutes of a much longer conversation between Martin Anderson and Alice Herz Sommer: now 102 and closely acquainted with the Zemlinsky circle, her memories of which are a last, cherishable link with one of the leading musicians of his era. Philip Weller (University of Nottingham) posited the legacy of Zemlinsky from the vantage of a forward-looking eclecticism, while Christopher Dromey (Middlesex University) examined the tantalising fragment that is Maiblumen blühten überall in the context of a short-lived predilection for the string sextet. Raymond Coffer (University of London) then gave an investigative (and entertaining!) account of relations between the Zemlinsky and Schoenberg families in the light of the ‘Gerstl crisis’ during the summer of 1908.

Session Four was devoted to a keynote speech from Antony Beaumont – author of “Zemlinsky” (Faber, 2000) – whose work in researching the composer’s legacy and making numerous works available for performance and publication (notably the magnificent last opera “Der König Kandaules”, still awaiting performance in the UK) has contributed much to the greater understanding of his music in recent years. His talk focussed on preparing accurate performing materials for the opera “Der Traumgörge” (due to be staged in Berlin next spring) and the recently rediscovered Cello Sonata (see below), an informative and insightful way with which to round off an absorbing day of talks and discussion.

It should be noted the papers, amply illustrated with music examples, photographs and recordings, were a model of how to present such material so as maintain concentration levels across a day of technically involved subject-matter: not something to be taken for granted at events of this kind.

After a lengthy interval, the day concluded with a recital by Raphael Wallfisch and John York. Four pieces from Korngold’s incidental music to As You Like It benefited from being heard in so effective a transcription, while Peter Fribbins’s recent Cello Sonata proceeded through a tense ‘Prelude’ and lyrical ‘Aria’ to a ‘Toccata’ that brought the music’s disruptive impulses into powerful, because hard-won, accord. Framing these were newly discovered works by Zemlinsky. The Three Short Pieces (1891) would make delight recital encores, and the Cello Sonata (1894) is a substantial (29-minute) addition to the repertoire; its intently-argued first movement followed by a songful Andante and an Allegretto finale that resolves the work’s formal and expressive tensions in a mood of almost wistful repose.

Committed and sympathetic performances by Wallfisch and York (they will be including the Fribbins and Zemlinsky sonatas at their Wigmore Hall recital on December 20th) made for a pleasurable recital that ended the day’s proceedings in ideal fashion.

All credit to Middlesex University for having held so valuable an event: hopefully the constituent papers will see publication in one form or another before too long, and future such conferences will take place in so appropriate and welcoming an environment.

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