Classical CD Reviews

ZEMLINSKY: The Mermaid (Symphonic Fantasy); Sinfonietta, Op. 23 – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/ James Judd, conductor – Naxos

If you don’t know this composer and love post-romantic music, here is a great place to start.

Published on December 4, 2009

ZEMLINSKY: The Mermaid (Symphonic Fantasy); Sinfonietta, Op. 23 – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/ James Judd, conductor – Naxos

ZEMLINSKY: The Mermaid (Symphonic Fantasy); Sinfonietta, Op. 23 – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/ James Judd, conductor – Naxos 8.570240, 63:26 *****:

The Mermaid is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story where the protagonist saves a prince from drowning in a storm, makes a pact with a witch in order to live among people as one of them, then returns finally to the sea when she finds out that the prince is betrothed to another. Shades of Splash? It definitely had an influence on that popular Tom Hanks movie, but the music that Zemlinsky provides is far broader in scope and sweeping in nature. Premiered the same night as Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Melisande, it garnered little attention afterwards, and the third movement was even considered lost for a long time. When it turned up in 1984, the first two movements having made their way to the states while the orphaned third remained in Europe, it was given only its forth performance, though by now it has become one of the two most popular Zemlinsky scores, the other being his Lyric Symphony. There are only a few recordings currently available including Chailly and Conlon, both dandies, but I think that Judd more than holds his own even if the Decca Chailly has a little more resonant sound. But I cannot complain about this Naxos; the New Zealanders are captured at their finest, and Judd brings off a sufficiently windswept sound built into the composer’s score.

Though his Sinfonietta was written 30 years later, many have seen in this work a radical departure for the composer, hinting at Mahler, Stravinsky, and Hindemith gracing its pages. Actually I think it reminds me of some of the classical scores of Korngold being written at the time, for it is still in possession of remarkably lucid and gorgeously-flung melodies, only this time with a degree of neoclassical spikiness thrown in for good measure. Its arguments are clear cut and easy to follow, and follow them we do, with a joy and ease of ear that only the best composers can provide. The virtuosity and passion are a pleasure to hear, culminating in one of the finest scores the composer produced.

Wholeheartedly recommended as an essential post-romantic release.

– Steven Ritter   




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