The Mermaid & A German Requiem

Die Seejungfrau [The Mermaid]
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Marie Arnet (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sandwiched between a young American girl – who was restless enough during the fairy tale element of the concert, Zemlinsky’s orchestral triptych based on bicentenary birthday-boy Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, and who I had hoped would be taken away from her loggia box before Brahms’s Requiem, but unfortunately not – and a family elder who spent the second half checking English translations of the bible on hiselectronic encyclopaedia and noting the results in his programme, I was more than thankful that James Conlon pulled out a cracker of a concert which meant that such distractions (along with the coughs and mobile phones that seem, sadly, de rigueur, this season) could mostly be ignored.

James Conlon is perhaps the world’s most ardent Zemlinsky expert (although the composer’s editor and biographer Anthony Beaumont has also taken up the baton) and for those in the know Conlon’s EMI recordings from Cologne over the last decade have been an important addition to the Zemlinsky discography.

Conlon conducted Die Seejungfrau (losing Andersen’s ‘little’) without a score and the music soared as one of the benefits of such immediate contact between conductor and orchestra. For once bringing together both main themes of this year’s Proms – the sea and fairy tales – it is the former that seems to take precedence, much of the music full of the swell of the sea. The horror of the original Andersen tale seems muted, but the BBCSymphony Orchestra – with violin solos from guest leader Daniel Rowland – was full blooded and committed.

It wasn’t the first Proms performance (Dohnányi had conducted it in 1987 – maybe not complete? – before more Brahms, the First Symphony) of this remarkable work, which was premièred in 1911 in the same concert as the premiere of Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. But when Zemlinsky fled the Nazis in 1938, the first movement was left in Vienna. Theparts were only reassembled and performed again in 1984. It is said that the story appealed to Zemlinsky because his pupil and lover Alma Schindler left him for Mahler, and somehow it is autobiographical. Perhaps Zemlinsky saw Alma as the mermaid and himself as the evil sea-witch, from which she escapes. Just a thought!

Brahms was an early hero of Zemlinsky. The German Requiem – for both Brahms’s mother and for Schumann – is a heartfelt, almost secular work, with no reference to Jesus or Christ, although the carefully chosen Psalm texts do mention the Lord a lot. In this strong reading, A German Requiem came across as full of awe. Marie Arnet was the soprano solo in the fifth movement (the chorus seated to aid the hushed nature of its parts) and – what a fantastic replacement! – Simon Keenlyside replaced the ill Bo Skovhus.

Conlon had the measure of this work, too. Restrained – as much of the work’s sentiment demands – but also clear in his direction: he got the best out of orchestra and chorus. It’s good that he’s back with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the winter season (Britten, Debussy and Varèse: 5 May).

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