It is very hard to believe, but the first post-war performance of the Lyrische Symphonie dates from the late 1970s. This absolute masterpiece was composed between 1922-23 and premiered in Prague on 4 June 1924. Like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, it is a kind of cross between an orchestral song cycle and a symphony.
Zemlinsky wrote the work on the text of the Bengal poet Rabindranath Tagore ‘The Gardener’, in a German translation by Hans Effenberger. The seven love poems are cast in the form of a dialogue between a prince (baritone) and a girl in love (soprano). Many musicologists consider the work to be autobiographical and there is certainly an element of truth in that.
Or was it the (still?) raw break with Alma Schindler, as some critics would have us believe? I don’t think so, I’m much more inclined to believe Antony Beaumont (the Zemlinsky connoisseur and biographer) that the work was about his relationship with Louise Sachsel, which had just begun at the time.
Seen in this context, it is perhaps interesting to know that Alban Berg quoted the third movement of the symphony (‘Du bist mein Eigen’) in the ‘Adagio Apassionato’ of his Lyrical Suite for string quartet. As you know, Berg had a secret love affair at the time with Hanna Fuchs, for whom he composed the work.
Below is the Adagio appassionato performed by the Galimir String Quartet. The recording dates from 1935:
There are quite a few performances of Zemlinsky’s once so mercilessly forgotten but now best-known and most frequently performed work. Two by James Conlon and Riccardo Chailly immediately stand out.
Chailly wins, mainly because of the unparalleled sound of the RCO, but in the fourth movement Conlon manages to elicit such sweet tones from the orchestra that I am totally won over by his performance.
Recording under Riccardo Chaillly:
The soloists are also better for Conlon. Bo Skovhus convinces me much more than Håkan Hagegård. The latter has a warm, round baritone with something soothing in his timbre and I find that a disadvantage here. The restlessness in the voice of Skovhus gives his words more impact.
I also find Skovhus’s interpretation more transparent and his pronunciation better. Listen how he sings the words “Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, du, die meinen endlosen Träumen wohnt”… !
Soile Isokoski is also preferable to Chailly’s soprano, Alexandra Marc, however beautifully she sings.
Recording with James Conlon:
Bo Skovhus has always been an artist with a more than warm heart for ‘Entartete Musik’. He showed this by, among other things, the choices he made for the works he sang.
Lyrische Symphonie was often featured in his concert programmes all over the world, including in Amsterdam (March 2007, with Hillevi Martinpelto and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles). In addition to the EMI recording with Conlon, Skovhus recorded the work also for RCA, this time with the incredibly beautiful lyrical soprano Luba Orgonasova.
The conducting of Claus Peter Flor is a bit unbalanced, but the six extra songs, sung by Skovhus and beautifully accompanied on the piano by Helmut Deutsch, make up for a lot.
Below is a recording with Bo Skovhus, Maria Bengtsson and the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Kirill Petrenko, recorded in the Berlin Philharmonic on 30 December 2011:
In the recording on BBC Classics from 1996 the vocal parts are sung with great understanding and even more nuances by Thomas Allen and Elisabeth Söderström. Michael Gielen shows an enormous affinity for the score.