Schoenberg and Zemlinsky at the Royal Festival Hall

It's been a good few weeks for live performances of rarely-heard works: Die Tote Stadt, Gurrelieder, and yesterday evening at the Royal Festival Hall, Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony. It was preceded by a well-known work: Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht: this early work (1899) was initially composed for string sextet, but nowadays is usually heard in the string orchestra version. It's based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, and provided the music and the basic plot for one of my favourite ballets, Anthony Tudor's Pillar of Fire.

The poem describes a man and a woman walking in a moonlit forest: she confesses that she is pregnant by another man, expecting his rejection, but he replies that their love will transfigure the child and make it theirs. The music is romantic with little overt dissonance, and no hint of the upheaval Schoenberg was to cause later with his move to serial music.

Someone - and I wish I could remember where I saw this - said that after late romanticism there was a chasm, crossed only by a narrow bridge, leading to atonality (no home key) and serialism (the use of the twelve-tone scale): Richard Strauss reached it with Elektra and turned back in horror to compose his late romantic operas: Schoenberg crossed it: and Zemlinsky danced about on the edge.

The Lyric Symphony (1923) provides a good example of this dancing about on the edge (though the frivolous image should not lead to the idea that the work is light-hearted - far from it). It consists of a setting of seven love poems by Rabindranath Tagore, translated into German from the original Bengali, performed as a continuous piece by a large orchestra and two vocalists. The scoring is lush, and masterly in its use of orchestra colour; the work reaches towards atonality, but always manages to keep one foot on the home key, so to speak. I've always felt it to be flawed - the best music is in the first two poems, and it does tend to become rather vague as it progresses through its 48 minutes: however it's still impressive to listen to, and as always with very complex scoring, benefits immensely from a live performance where one can hear detail which even the best recordings cannot match.

Both works were well performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen who held the Lyric Symphony together well and plotted the best possible course through its amorphousness. The singers were Solveig Kringelborn (soprano) and Juha Uusital (bass-baritone).

Posted: Fri - March 13, 2009 at 09:47 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM