Alexander von Zemlinsky's (1871 - 1942) Lyric Symphony and Alban Berg's (1885 - 1935) Lyric Suite are related yet highly different 20th Century masterworks dating from the 1920s. This budget-priced Naxos CD offers the opportunity to get to know the symphony and Berg's own arrangement for string orchestra of a portion of his suite performed by the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf.
Zemlinsky found an early champion in Brahms and he later became a teacher of Schoenberg. He fell in love with Alma Schindler who rejected him in favor of Gustav Mahler. His music has received growing attention in recent years, and the Lyric Symphony (1923) remains his best-known work. The symphony generally looks backwards in that it is in a late romantic idiom with many resemblances to Mahler's song cycles and to Schoenberg's early work, Gurrelieder. It has a perfumed, art nouveau oriental quality. The work is scored for baritone, soprano and large orchestra. It consists of seven movements setting love poems of Rabindranath Tagore in German translation. The symphony tells of the search for love, momentary ecstasy, and loss. The man and woman sing the poems alternately, but never sing together. The orchestral writing varies from large-scale, featuring percussion, cymbals, and brass, to sections with a chamber-music intimacy.
After an extended, dramatic orchestral introduction, the baritone opens with a long, declamatory song, "I am restless" about his loneliness and need for love. The soprano responds with a seductive, scherzo-like song in which she confesses to her mother her sexual desire for a young prince. In the third and fourth songs, the man and woman respectively sing of love. But in the fifth song, the man again evidences restlessness and the desire to be free from commitment. The soprano voices resignation to loss in the sixth song. In the final song of the symphony, the man departs in sadness, with the song followed by a lengthy, wandering postlude. Baritone Roman Trekel and Soprano Twyla Robinson give emotional performances of this over-wrought romantic music.
Berg was a student of Schoenberg and a friend of Zemlinsky's. A member of the Second Viennese School" with Schoenberg and Webern, Berg was a romantic who wrote, in a modernistic, atonal, style He wrote his six-movement Lyric Suite for string quartet in1925 and 1926 and dedicated it to Zemlinsky. Berg then arranged the second, third, and fourth movement of the string quartet for string orchestra, and the orchestral version is performed on this CD.
Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony speaks of love searched for, found, and lost, and so does Berg's Lyric Suite. Berg wrote the work for a woman named Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of a friend. Berg was himself married at the time as well. The Lyric Suite is a personal, hermeneutic work, and many scholars have explored its symbolism in depicting Berg's relationship to Fuchs-Robettin. There is also a great deal of musical discussion about the extent to which the Suite is based upon Schoenberg's 12-tone row and about trying to identify the row on which it is based. These discussions, however, are unnecessary to feel the passion and emotive force of this great music. In its astringent, difficult idiom and in its visceral romanticism, the Lyric Suite expresses love in the language of the Twentieth Century.
Although Graf's reading of the Suite has been criticized, I came away from this performance deeply moved. The work begins (in this orchestral version) with an extensive love song with many shifts of tempo and character. The short middle movement is a whispering scherzo which surrounds a moment of great calm. The work concludes with a highly emotional declaration of love which reaches a climax in quoting the third movement of Zemlinsky's symphony set to Tagore's words "you are mine own."
I liked the Lyric Symphony but the Lyric Suite moved my heart. This CD includes scholarly program notes but does not include song texts for reasons of copyright. Listeners wanting to hear the full string quartet version of Berg's Lyric Suite may wish to explore an excellent budget-priced recording on Naxos, linked below, by the New Zealand String Quartet.
Berg: String Quartet; Lyric Suite; Wolf: Italian SerenadeRobin Friedman