Albrecht Conducts Zemlinsky’s “Die Seejungfrau”

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ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau / Netherlands Philharmonic Orch.; Marc Albrecht, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186740

This is the sixth recording of Zemlinsky’s three-part “fantasy” Die Seejungfrau or The Mermaid. The other currently existing recordings were made by Cornelius Meister (CPO), John Storgårds (Ondine), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Anthony Beaumont (Chandos) and Thomas Dausgaard (Chandos), of which the second and third have received high recommendations from critics. The Chailly performance is available for free streaming on YouTube (you can listen to it HERE), and it is a very fine one.

Zemlinsky began writing this piece during a moment of great personal tension: the love of his life, Alma Schindler, was about to marry Gustav Mahler. He later told his friend Arnold Schoenberg that this piece was “a preliminary study for my ‘Symphony of Death,’” and that the writing of it completely drained him. Surprisingly, he suppressed the work after its only three performances in January 1905 and didn’t even mention it in a list of works that he sent to Universal Edition in 1910. The liner notes by Mark Berry suggest that “he may have come to regret the persistence of elements of less-than-symphonic repetition, which he saw as more at home in the Viennese operettas he conducted to earn a living.”

The music is in a heavily Romantic style, greatly informed by Richard Strauss and a bit by Wagner, although ironically one also hears echoes, or perhaps pre-echoes, of Mahler in it. The opening movement certainly has a bit of the fatalism one hears in certain slow movements of Mahler symphonies, even a bit like the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde—yet there are also, as Berry pointed out, several sweetsy-treacly themes which are far less than artistic, sounding more like operetta or even a future genre which was yet to come, movie music. Die Seejungfrau thus walks an odd tightrope between high art and cheap entertainment, and alas for Zemlinsky the operetta-related moments of the score aren’t tuneful or memorable enough to catch on with the general public.

And yet, those highly dramatic moments do tend to salvage the work somewhat. Albrecht’s performance is, overall, six minutes slower than Chailly’s (47 minutes compared to 41), but he uses that extra time to give a bit more weight to the more serious slow music in the score like the opening of the first section. I hear no real loss of drama in the angst-filled sections, and in fact the sonics of this performance are better, more wide-screen-cinematic than Chailly’s. It’s as if the orchestra has completely opened up to present its full richness to the listener.

The ultimate question one must ask oneself is whether or not this score, in toto, appeals to you as a work of art. For all the fine things in it, I personally could not escape the impression that a bit too much of it was derivative of Strauss, particularly Ein Heldenleben (which is much more original in concept) and the then-recently-completed Symphonia Domestica (which is pretty much rubbish). For me, personally, there was too much of a “neither-fish-nor-fowl” feeling about it that put me off. The numerous lapses into operetta-styled melodies, such as the jaunty 6/8 tune for strings and glockenspiel at the beginning of the second section, continually disappointed me. I have a fairly low tolerance for Romantic orchestral pieces to begin with, and normally do not like music that sounds too comfortable and entertaining, and more than half of Die Seejungfrau fits into that category.

But as I say, Albrecht’s performance is a very good one and the sound is simply spectacular. If you enjoy this score better than I, by all means go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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