ALEXANDER Zemlinsky (1871-1942) died in obscurity in Larchmont, N.Y., four years after coming to America as a refugee from Hitler. He has been remembered by a few people as a conductor, by a few more as a pedagogue, and by hardly anyone as a composer. His status in that respect is now as it was described by Alban Berg in 1920: "One of the masters hidden from the public."
Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, acknowledged Zemlinsky as his own only teacher, as "the best conductor alive" (in 1914), and as a great composer as well. Zemlinsky also taught the young Alma Maria Schindler, who gave up her ambition as a composer when she married Gustav Mahler; another of his pupils was the still younger Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Zemlinsky adored Mahler, was appointed by him to conduct at the Vienna Opera, and became an outstanding conductor of his symphonies.
Zemlinsky's own "Lyric Symphony," composed in 1922, was frankly modeled after the example provided by Mahler in "Das Lied von der Erde"; it is a "song symphony," in seven sections directly connected by symphonic interludes (rather than the six separate songs in the Mahler work), with a cycle of love poems by the Indian Rabindranath Tagore sung in alternation by a baritone and a soprano. (Berg, in dedicating his own "Lyric Suite" to Zemlinsky, advised that the very title of that work represented an homage to the "Lyric Symphony," and quoted a theme from the symphony in the fourth movement of his suite.)
James Levine conducted the New York Philharmonic in performances of the "Lyric Symphony" three years ago, and the La Salle Quartet began playing Zemlinsky's string quartets a bit earlier. The La Salle's recording of the Second Quartet, issued by Deutsche Grammophon more than two year ago, was apparently the first recording of any of Zemlinsky's music to appear in this country; the size of his domestic discography has been doubled now with the release, on the same label, of the "Lyric Symphony," sung by Julia Varady and her husband, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel (DG digital 2532.021).
Tagore's poems of love's yearing, enthrallment and eventual farewell are both less exquisitely subtle and less poignant than the Chinese texts Mahler selected for "Das Lied von der Erde," and Zemlinsky's music cannot be said to rise to the level of its extraordinary antecedent. The "Lyric Symphony" is nonetheless a work well worth hearing, and has quite an impact in its own right. It can remind us, too, that a composer who openly declares himself as following in the footsteps of another is likely to be far less imitative, and to show more originality, than many who make no such acknowledgment.
An earlier recording of the "Lyric Symphony," by Dorothy Dorow, Siegmund Nimsgern and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gabriele Ferro (Italia ITL 17048) has been on the import lists for a while; I have not heard it, and so cannot comment on it. The new DG is, as the names involved would suggest, a beautiful and committed presentation of the work, and it is sumptuously recorded.
Karl Weigl (1881-1949), a pupil of Zemlinsky's, came to the United States in the same year as Zemlinsky. He also received encouragement from Mahler in his youth and composed in a more or less Mahlerish style. Several of Weigl's works have been performed in New York, and nearly a dozen have been recorded, the latest being the third of his eight string quartets, the one in A minor, Op. 4, which he dedicated "To my teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky." The performance is by the Chester Quartet on Stolat SZM-0121.
No information is offered on the Chester Quartet; from the recording data, one infers the group is connected with the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. The performance, in any event, is a most persuasive one -- tidy, assured, wellbalanced, and unarguably involved -- and the recorded sound is handsomely realistic.
As for the music itself, it is another most agreeable example of how a composer of imagination and substance can be a continuator without being a mere imitator. This is perhaps the sort of work Mahler might have written if he had composed string quartets, and yet the very coloring and the expressive themes that give that impression also identify Weigl as an original thinker. A paradox, if you will, but not a contradiction. At the Stolat price, this is an especially enticing release.