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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent performances and production values provide a fascinating insight into the music of Zemlinsky's formative years, 25 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Zemlinsky: Symphonies [Martyn Brabbins, BBC National Orchestra of Wales] [Hyperion: CDA67985] (Audio CD)
I've had a good deal of affection for these two early symphonies by Zemlinsky since I first discovered James Conlon's pioneering recording of them for EMI back in the late 1990s*: in the context of the composer Zemlinsky was to become they are undoubtedly atypical works and, as products of his conservatoire training, it is also true to say that they are "apprentice" pieces - yet that label belies the substance and quality of the music that we have here. Several times when listening to these two works I've wondered what sort of a symphony cycle Zemlinsky might have produced had he been born a generation or so earlier - one can hardly talk of promise unfulfilled, of course, when one considers the masterly works he produced in his maturity but it is tempting to think that he might well have flowered into another major Viennese symphonist in the received tradition had his creative development begun earlier than it did.

As my fellow reviewer has pointed out, there are several palpable influences to be found in both works, revealing the composer's keen awareness of the musical developments of his time, but the most significant is that of Brahms; indeed, Zemlinsky himself described how he and his fellow admirers of the latter at the conservatoire became wittily known as "Brahmins" for their devotion to the elder composer's music and compositional methods. The passacaglia finale of the second symphony is an obvious tribute to the then recently deceased Brahms but his influence is to be felt throughout the fabric of both works - the way Zemlinsky often develops his material through the variation of sometimes quite small melodic cells and the warmth of the scoring: the trio of the D minor symphony's 'Allegro scherzando' rises to a splendidly rich climax, for example, and the subsequent slow movement positively glows, particularly so here in Brabbins' beautifully judged performance and Hyperion's excellent audio quality.

For a first venture into symphonic writing, the D minor symphony is by any stretch an accomplished work of great promise (the opening 'Allegro ma non troppo' displays a sterling command of musical structure, to which the dramatic but inevitable-sounding recapitulation bears witness) and makes for extremely satisfying listening but the second symphony that Zemlinsky wrote five years later displays real mastery of the genre. More expansive than its predecessor and still making use of traditional symphonic forms, in terms of idiom it is freer and more varied: the melodic material has more individuality; in terms of harmony and scoring, influences other than Brahms are more apparent here, notably echoes of Wagner (what Gavin Plumley in his liner note terms, "the call of Siegfried and the Mastersingers from the Hofoper across the Ringstrasse"). There is I think, as well as increased individuality, increased confidence here - following the sonorously scored 'Sostenuto' introduction, that self-assurance is apparent in the uplifting forward-momentum of the opening 'Allegro', its expressive variety and more sophisticated and colourful orchestration (the brass, for instance, are used much more freely and imaginatively), yet the movement as a whole still displays an admirably cogent sonata form structure. And this marriage of more sophisticated technique and more openness to musical developments of the time is manifest across the work as a whole, be it in the vitality of the 'Scherzando' second movement with its hints of Mahler or in the beautiful 'Adagio'. As an aside, I have to say, while I do agree about this movement's nobility of utterance, I don't find it a "dreamy" movement as Gavin Plumley does - there seems to me to be too much contrast (and occasionally drama) in it for that epithet to work completely satisfyingly, although I could be tempted to apply the description to the corresponding movement in the first symphony.

Although I will always be grateful to James Conlon for his advocacy of Zemlinsky in general (he played a significant role in the long overdue reappraisal and restoration of the composer) and his rescue of these two works in particular, I do think this new Hyperion release is the one to go to if you are interested in hearing these early works. Sometimes Brabbins is more expansive in his treatment of the music, sometimes - as in his tauter reading of the passacaglia finale to the second symphony - he finds more focussed energy in it but it is always in service of the work's overall structure and I think it is hard to imagine finer advocacy than this on disc for the two symphonies coming along any time soon. Hyperion's sound quality is second-to-none too, with natural warmth and impeccable clarity - the EMI release by no means suffered from poor sound but I do think this new issue is markedly better.

These two symphonies might not be indicative of Zemlinsky's mature music but they do make for a fascinating insight into where he came from - and all the more so, perhaps, for where he ended up creatively - and taken purely as symphonies on there own merits they also provide repeated rewarding listening.

Warmly recommended.

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* Zemlinsky: Symphony 1 & 2
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much pleasure, 14 Feb 2014
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John L. Moles (Durham) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Zemlinsky: Symphonies [Martyn Brabbins, BBC National Orchestra of Wales] [Hyperion: CDA67985] (Audio CD)
I've been listening to Zemlinsky for about two years now. Anyone in the market for a 'new' 'great' composer need not hesitate. I've only just bought this disk, but it's already clear that it affords abundant pleasure. Part of the fun, no doubt, is 'spotting the influences', of which there are many, but there's distinctiveness too and bags of Viennese charm. The symphonies here seem very well played and 'shaped', and the acoustic is warmer than Hyperion sometimes produces. The notes are very informative. Highly recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 15 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Zemlinsky: Symphonies [Martyn Brabbins, BBC National Orchestra of Wales] [Hyperion: CDA67985] (Audio CD)
excellent
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