City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen … Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht & Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony

Verklärte Nacht, Op.4
Lyric Symphony, Op.18

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano) & Juha Uusitalo (bass-baritone)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe Philharmonia Orchestra’s series “City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935”, devoted to the music of Vienna between those years, may offer relatively little that previous such retrospectives (not least from this orchestra) have not featured, but Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” was a welcome and by no means inevitable inclusion. Completed in 1922, it encapsulates that fin de siècle mood which might have been curtailed by the explorations of the Second Viennese School and cultural implosion of the First World War, yet which further evolved – mainly via the medium of opera – at least until the coming of the Third Reich.

In constructing a symphonic song-cycle on the basis of ‘exotic’ verse, here taken from the collection “The Gardener” by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Zemlinsky was consciously – and freely admitted – drawing on the precedent of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”. As with that work, “Lyric Symphony” takes stock of its era by drawing on personal experience – though Zemlinsky is more systematic in this respect through the way that the seven poems are arranged (more or less chronologically) to chart the process of coming together and separation, spiritually if not physically – of the lovers: a corollary to his attraction to the opera singer (later his second wife) Louise Sachsel, though this is a work no more dependent on circumstance than is Berg’s “Lyric Suite” – itself inspired by the earlier piece and whose quoting from it kept Zemlinsky’s name dimly alive in the quarter-century after his death.

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) & Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)The first movement, with its imposing introduction that sets out most of the work’s salient motifs, is finely sustained without being over-wrought to a degree that holds good for the section as a whole; and with a hushed intensity in the transition to the second movement, whose initial capriciousness gives way to uninhibited energy. With its verse-and-refrain format, the third movement feels outwardly the most conventional, yet any predictability in their interaction is offset by the harmonic flexibility of their treatment – and by an intently decreasing momentum that makes possible the near stasis and hushed but all the more intense expectancy of the fourth movement. An expectancy suddenly shattered by the ruthlessness of the fifth movement, which rapidly blows itself out to reveal the fragmented gestures, tentative allusions and even sparser textures of the sixth movement. From here on, the expressive components gradually and also movingly re-coalesce in a seventh movement that sees the work through to its expressive apotheosis – impassioned though never blatant in emotional import – before a serene orchestral postlude of truly spellbinding poise.

Although “Lyric Symphony” enjoyed a number of revivals during the 1980s and early 1990s, recent accounts have been infrequent. Whether or not Esa-Pekka Salonen was previously familiar with the work, this performance was impressive in its handling both of the overall (45-minute) trajectory and of the intricate but never opaque instrumental detail such as confirms Zemlinsky as a master of the orchestra. Tempos were brisk but largely devoid of the matter-of-factness that has often undermined Salonen’s interpretation of late-Romantic music, with the Philharmonia Orchestra delivering playing to rank with its best from recent years. Juha Uusitalo lacked nothing in command or presence, though his bass-baritone firmly emphasising the latter register meant the relatively high tessitura later in the work caused him not a little discomfort. No such reservation applied to Solveig Kringelborn, who rendered the demanding soprano writing with unforced eloquence and a limpid tone that made one long to hear her in one of Zemlinsky’s operas.

A pity the first half had not reached this level of excellence. Although Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899) is now more often heard (and rightly so) in its original string sextet guise, the composer’s transcription carries an expressive charge such as a large string body is uniquely equipped to deliver. Certainly the Philharmonia strings met its demands with no mean unanimity of ensemble and weight of tone, but a performance which pushed the expressive extremes to their limit needed greater cohesion between its sections to convince. This was an unashamedly ‘public’ account – whether in the protestations of remorse in the second section or warmth of understanding in the fourth, while the framing sections distilled a potent atmosphere. Overall, however, the performance seemed unduly weighed-down by its own emotions, not least when Salonen’s conveying of them too often bordered on the disingenuous.

Programme books for series such as this are hardly novel these days, but special praise is due to that for “City of Dreams” – which combines lengthy though never abstruse notes on each of the works performed along with introductory essays on the topics central to Viennese culture of the period. All the more pity, then, when inclusiveness of presentation is not matched by that of the actual music: would Philharmonia audiences be deterred at the prospect of encountering the music Franz Schreker, Ernst Krenek or Franz Schmidt in such a context? Or is Salonen simply not interested in performing them?

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