Gielen Conducts Zemlinsky

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It’s almost funny in a way; every time SWR Musik issues another boxed set in their Michael Gielen Edition, Orfeo counters with a single disc (or two) of formerly unissued Gielen performances in their archive, as if to say, “Hey, look, we’ve got some Michael Gielen recordings, too!” Thus we now have this 1989 performance of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony coupled with a 1993 performance of his Prelude to a Drama.

But since the Lyric Symphony doesn’t get all that many recordings, another one is certainly welcome. Written in his earlier years, before his harmonies became more modern but beyond the period in which he was infatuated with Brahms, this is a piece that starts out sounding somewhat modern but by the two-minute mark settles into a more Romantic vein and stays there most of the time.

Comparing this recording to the more famous one by Christoph Eschenbach on Capriccio, I hear similar shaping and pacing of the music. The biggest difference is that with Gielen you hear a bit more inner detail, and this in itself makes it interesting, but even more so, Gielen attacks some of the more Romantic passages with the same gusto one heard in the opening, which makes it more dynamic.

One might say the same thing in regard to the singers. Matthias Goerne’s rich, plush baritone voice graces the Eschenbach recording, and he sings very beautifully indeed, but Roland Hermann with his brighter, more biting voice brings a much more dynamic perspective to the lyrics in this performance. Moreover, as the first movement progresses, one can hear Gielen sparking the music with an almost Mahlerian passion, which is perfect for this score. Comparing the timings on both, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Gielen is faster in every single movement, sometimes by a very considerable margin. His performance of the fourth movement, for instance, clocks in at 7:45, more than two minutes faster than Escenbach’s 9:56, and the last movement is played in 7:22 compared to Eschenbach’s 9:08. Quite a difference, and it especially helps in the fourth-movement violin-viola duet, which bogs down pretty badly in the Eschenbach version.

There is, however, one difference in which the edge goes to Eschenbach, and that is in his choice of soprano soloist. The great Christine Schäfer’s voice is much more beautiful than Karan Armstrong’s somewhat squally tones, and after a while Armstrong’s voice got on my nerves (I heard her once in person, as Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and she sounded pretty much the same). Happily, she does improve after singing for about 10 minutes, and the overall performance is just so much better that I’ll learn to live with her singing.

And you should, too, because this is by far the most dynamic, exciting and overall fabulous performance of this symphony out there. As for the Prelude to a Drama, that’s also conducted very well, but it’s this performance of the Lyric Symphony that will grab your attention and hold it throughout.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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