English

Silenced Voices

Silenced voices

Do you know the Black Oak Ensemble? There is a good chance you don’t, even though this American string trio, which barely anyone knows in the Netherlands, is rated as absolute top class. Its recent CD called Silenced Voices features pieces by six Jewish composers,  Géza Frid, Paul Hermann, Dick Kattenburg, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Sándor Kuti.

silnced ermann_1

Paul Hermann

They originally came from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands and with the exception of Géza Frid, who was active in the Dutch Resistance, they were all murdered. Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Dick Kattenburg at Auschwitz. Sándor Kuti at a concentration camp in the Ukraine, probably in 1945 (!). But we don’t even know when or where the almost Dutch Paul Hermann was murdered.

Silenceed Kuti_Sándor

Sándor Kuti

Sándor Kuti studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with Georg Solti, who had a great deal of respect for him and once said that if he had not been murdered, Kuti would have become one of the greatest composers of Hungary. I read that he continued to compose up until his death somewhere in the Ukraine.

His Serenade for String Trio (1934) was what touched me the most on this CD. Of course the fact that I had never heard this composition before could have influenced how it affected me, but even when I listened to it again, it intrigued and moved me. Despite the numerous quotes straight from Hungarian folk music, the trio got under my skin. Just listen to the mesmerizing Scherzando that turns into an ominous Adagio ma non troppo. Real goosebumps.

Silenced Géza Frid lowres

Géza Frid

Géza Frid taught chamber music at the Utrecht Conservatory from 1964 to 1970, and his trio also had its world premiere here. Frid survived the war but died a horrifying death. The staff at his nursing home failed to check the temperature in his bathtub and he died at the Beverwijk Burn Centre.

Silenced Krasa

Hans Krása

Like Gideon Klein’s string trio, Hans Krása’s Passacaglia & Fugue for String Trio had already been recorded a couple of times, though still not often enough. Certainly not if you bear in mind that neither of the compositions are anything short of true masterpieces.

Silenced gideon-klein-bababa2d-8316-404b-bef4-7146a240c53-resize-750

Gideon Klein

There is also an earlier recording – one recording! – of Dick Kattenburg’s Trio à cordes. It had its world première on the incredible CD of The Hague String Trio. The composition only takes five minutes but what a five minutes they are!

silenced -Zelfportret_op_partituur,_door_Dick_Kattenburg

Dick Kattenburg: self portrait

The performance by the Black Oak Ensemble is simply sublime. I think you should all buy this CD!.


Kattenburg: Trio à cordes
Kuti: Serenade for String Trio 
Krása: Passacaglia & Fuga for String Trio
Klein: Trio for violin, viola, and cello
Hermann: Strijktrio
Frid: Trio à cordes, Op. 1
Black Oak Ensemble
Cedile Records CDR 90000 189

English translation: Sheila Gogol

 

 

 

About Victoria de los Angeles, a Madonna among opera singers.

de los Angeles

Victoria de los Angeles was without a doubt one of the most beautiful lyrical sopranos of her generation. She made her debut in 1945 at the Liceu in Barcelona as the Gräfin in Le Nozze di Figaro. Her international breakthrough came when she sang Salud in La vida breve by Manuel de Falla in 1948 for the BBC, a role she first performed in a staged performance at the Holland Festival in 1953.

de los angeles Salud

One year later she sang Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust in Paris and after that all the major stages in the world followed.

Her real name was Victoria Lopez Garcia. Why did she choose ‘de los Angeles’ as her stage name? It is not that important, but it fitted her like a glove. Not only did she look like a Spanish Madonna, but her voice was angelic too: gorgeous and of an innocent beauty. Something that made her less suitable for certain roles, such as Violetta. Not that she was bad, but she sounded very chaste.

And yet she was one of the best Manons (Massenet), also not exactly an example of a ‘decent’ woman:

Her interpretation of Carmen is also incredibly good. Not slutty and not too confident, but oh so attractive!

Her voice was not just lyrical, warm and delicate but also very aristocratic, so her Mimi and Cio Cio San were not only fragile and helpless but also got something royal and even Santuzza was enriched with a bit of nobility.

But the Los Angeles was more than just an opera diva. In addition to performing in operas, she frequently performed as a concert singer and was a very gifted song singer. It is said that at the beginning of her career, before performing in an opera, she insisted on giving a song recital first. In this way she could first introduce herself to the public as the real Victoria and not as an opera character.

For Spanish songs she has meant as much as Fischer-Dieskau for German songs or Peter Pears for English. She sang everything which was composed in her native country: starting with the medieval songs and the Sephardic romanceros and ending with zarzuelas and contemporary compositions.

Her repertoire was incredibly large. She sang Italian, Spanish, French and German songs and knew better than anyone how to make her own mark on everything she sang. Her Brahms and Mendelssohn are irresistible, and one cannot help falling in love with her ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ by Grieg.

Her loving, somewhat sweet timbre, her suppleness and her ability to colour words made her particularly suitable for the French repertoire. Her Debussy, her Ravel, her Delibes (just listen to ‘Les filles de Cadiz’!) are truly unrivalled.

Hopefully this album is still for sale.

Victoria de los Angeles
The very best of
Warner Classics 5758882 (2 CDs)

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

 

What’s the difference between a terrorist and a diva? ‘Caballé, beyond music’

Caballe docu

“We all owe a great deal to music (…) It is a form of expression that originates not so much from thinking as from feeling”. These words come from one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, Montserrat Caballé.

In his film Caballé Beyond Music, Antonio Farré portrays the diva*, her life and her career, talking to her, her family and her colleagues. The documentary also contains a lot of wonderful (archival) footage, starting with Caballé’s debut in Il Pirata in 1966 in Paris.

The film is interspersed with fun anecdotes such as how she smashed a door because she was not allowed to take time off (Caballé wanted to attend a performance of Norma with Maria Callas). How she had stopped a dress rehearsal in La Scala because she noticed that the orchestra was not tuned well. About her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the discovery of José Carreras (how beautiful he was!), her friendship with Freddy Mercury ….

About her Tosca in the ROH in London in the production that was made for Callas. She wasn’t happy with that, it didn’t feel good, but no one wanted to change it. Caballé called Callas, it was exactly eight days before her death, and complained about her fate. “But of course it doesn’t feel right”, said Callas. “I am tall and you are not, I am slim and you are not, I have long arms and you have not. Tell them to call me, I will convince them that you are not me”.

And so the production was adapted for Caballé. “Copies are never good,” Caballé says, and I agree with her. This is a fascinating portrait of a fascinating singer. Very, very worthwhile.

* London taxi driver: “What is the difference between a terrorist and a diva? You can negotiate with a terrorist”.

Caballé beyond music
With José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Cheryl Studer, Giuseppe di Stefano, Freddie Mercury, Claudio Abbado and others.
Directed by Antonio A. Farré
EuroArts 2053198

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

SINGING COMPETITIONS: PROS AND CONS

concoursen Moritz-Schwind-Saengerstreit-ohne-Rahmen

Moritz von Schwind:  Der Sängerkrieg

As a young singer you could, so to speak, take part in a singing competition every week. Everywhere there are opportunities to sing yourself into the spotlights. Great news for the many talents that are around. But not everything is necessarily positive.

It is claimed that ‘the public’ is fond of competitions and I believe that. Already in antiquity people were able to keep their minds at rest with bread and games; and all kinds of competitions were organised, for poets and philosophers, but also for singers. The tradition lived on, and singing competitions also found their way into operas. Just think of Die Meistersinger or Tannhaüser. You were always rewarded for your singing skills. Once you were allowed to take the beautiful bride home, nowadays your price has become more tangible. A sum of money, a contract with an opera house and secret hopes of fame and a great career. No wonder, then, that there are so many competitions.

But: aren’t there too many now? Shouldn’t there be an age limit? Can you compare a singer who already sings at big houses with a starting colleague? Do competitions bring what the often very young participants have hoped for? Does it help them in their careers? You win and then? And how do you deal with your loss?

All these questions made me decide to take a closer look at the phenomenon of ‘singing competitions’ and to talk to some directly involved.

Mary Rammeloo (soprano):

Concoursen Maartje

Een bijschrift invoeren

In 2008 Maartje Rammelo was one of the semi-finalists of the IVC, where she eventually won the Staetshuijs Fund Prize. At the Belvedere Competition in 2013 she reached the semi-finals. She also won an engagement in Essen. Rammeloo was a finalist at the Montserrat Caballé Competition in Zaragosa and at the Wilhelm Stennhammer Competition in Sweden.

 “Taking part in competitions gives a double feeling. It inspires and is exciting, but results are either terribly predictable or completely bizarre.

You always participate with the aim to show the best of yourself and hope that this is sufficient to convince a jury of your quality: but how can you judge the skill and artistry of a musician in a competition? In an audition for a production, an artistic team has a concept and an idea about who should play a role. But in such a contest, several judges, each with their own taste, compare apples with pears: a Figaro with a Tosca, a Handel countertenor with a Wagner soprano.

Not to mention the intrigues and the hidden agendas of some judges, the chauvinism in regional competitions and the exoticism/commercialism of sometimes choosing singers who don’t necessarily give the best performance, but who are very interesting because of their origin or appearance.

So why participate? It gives you a chance to try out new repertoire and get feedback. It’s a chance to sing for the most important people in the profession, for whom you’ll never get an audition arranged in real life without a brilliant agent who guides you in.

I haven’t yet participated in a competition that didn’t either involve me in work or contacts, or gave me some useful feedback. And that is ultimately what we want: to work! Sing! To stand in front of an audience!

The prizes make it easier to practise your profession. From a financial point of view, because our profession doesn’t make us rich in the first few years, and also in terms of fame, which in turn can create more work. But just as well there are plenty of prize winners of whom we will never hear from again and singers who have never won a competition that now have a world career. At the end of the day it’s all about the long haul, not about the quick success…

What is always very difficult with competitions, is choosing your repertoire. First of all, few singers are 100% sure of their ‘fach’. Most of them doubt again and again what judges would like to hear them in.

Each competition has its own requirements. So many arias in total, so many of them from the list of compulsory works, of which your first round may only last for so many minutes and the jury detirmines the number of arias for the next round, and so on. Terribly difficult. Because you want to be heard as much as possible. Different languages, different styles, different techniques and topics.

There are also a number of competitions that offer more than just the competition element. I now also encourage my own students to look out for those. Contests like the IVC that use things like a youth jury, master classes, concerts and lectures to make it a real singing festival. And these are often the competitions that keep in touch with you in the years that follow. Who are committed to the further development of the singers. But unfortunately there are very few of them…

I have learned that if you sing what you feel comfortable with and what you are really good at, then at least one person will be happy after your performance. Namely you.

Maartje Rammeloo sings ‘I want magic!’ from The Streetcar named Desire by André Previn:

Piotr Barański (countertenor):

concoursen Piotr-Baranski-Cornelia-Helfricht

© Cornelia Helfricht

In 2012, Piotr Barański was a semi-finalist at the IVC in Den Bosch.

 “For a long time I didn’t want to know anything about competitions, I didn’t think I was the type for them. You not only have to prepare yourself well, but also be sure of yourself and show the best of yourself to the jury, you have to perform while under stress. You have to be able to handle that very well and not everyone can.

And yet – competitions are very important. You get the chance to present yourself to a wider audience, to get to know new, important people – and in our profession we have to rely on connections and networks. And of course it’s very important that you can show yourself to conductors, agents, planners and casting directors who are looking for new talents.

Unfortunately, there are competitions where the eliminations and the first preliminaries take place behind closed doors and only the finals are open to the public. The chances of learning something from such competitions are then minimal.

The criteria of the jury are not always clear and the results can be very controversial. I know singers who, singing at the same level, win the highest prizes at one competition, while at the other they do not get any further than the preliminaries.

What is very important to me is the feedback. It is of the utmost importance for the further development of a singer to at least exchange a few words with the jury members, something that indeed happened at IVC and that has helped me enormously. A healthy, positive critique is indispensable and constructive.”

Piotr Barański (countertenor) and Hans Eijsackers (piano) in “Lullaby” from ‘Songs and Dances of Death’ by Modest Mussorgsky.

Reinild Mees (pianist):

concoursen reinild-0210d_hoogres

© Janica Draisma

“The results of singing competitions are already quite unpredictable – how a career goes after that is even more like gazing into a crystal ball! A performance (because that is what singing at a competition in fact is) is and remains a snapshot, even for those who listen and/or judge. There are so many factors involved: age, experience, musicality, voice, repertoire, language skills, etc. that it is sometimes difficult to determine which aspect is decisive.

The preparations for a competition, selecting and working on the repertoire with a singing teacher and a coach are invaluable. This requires great concentration and discipline – the pieces you have to learn will not be forgotten for the rest of your life – and in addition you have to make yourself strong to present yourself, you have to find the courage to do so, and you have to be able to cope with nervousness.

My experience is that a competition is always good for the development of a singer, even if in the worst case you are sent home. After all, the next day you have the choice: either you stop, or you decide to continue and develop yourself further in order to find new opportunities. Almost always you choose the second option and then it has been a good experience! Competitions are very valuable, even if you don’t win a prize…”

Reinild Mees accompanies Tania Kross in ‘Der Kaiser’ by Henriëtte Bosman±.

Reinild Mees and all Szymanowski songs, sang by (a.o.) Piotr Beczala and Iwona Sobotka.

Mauricio Fernández (from 1983 to 2016 casting director NTR Saturday Matinee):

concoursen Mauricio

“As casting director of one of the most ambitious and internationally recognised concert series in the world, I have attended several singing competitions over the past thirty years – as a juror and as an ‘observer’.

If you ask me who the real star singers were that I have heard, I have to dig deep into my memory to give you an honest answer. It is a fact, at least for me, that the really interesting singers, who have an international career by now, often didn’t even reach the semi-finals or even won a prize at all.

It’s a waste of time to pain yourself with the question why the singers who didn’t deserve it in your ears/eyes go home with the biggest prizes. There’s no point in understanding the thoughts of those who have rewarded them: artistic directors, casting directors, directors, singers or teachers.

We should think about why we need all these competitions. Are they primarily intended to broaden the judges’ network or are they supposed to serve the interests of the young talented singers in order to help them build a decent career? A long lasting career that can pay for everything they have invested in it – money and often personal sacrifices.

Don’t forget that singers, like all sincere musicians and artists, have an important mission: to warm the hearts of the audience, in the theatre or in your living room. They are in favour of treating the legacy of the composer with respect and of ensuring that opera, as a living art form, does not become extinct”.

Annett Andriesen (director of the IVC in Bosch from 2006 till 2018):

Concoursen Annet-Andriesen_web-728x485 (1) foto Annett Anne Frankplein

In the past, Andriesen herself has participated in several competitions. Now that she is leading a competition, she knows what a singer needs: care and respect.

 “The IVC is a tough competition, but with a human face. I don’t want to make wimps out of the participants, they have to be able to cope in the big bad world. A competition is a place where opinions are formed, where singers meet and can see where they stand, they can learn to sing under high pressure, they can build a network. Above all, they have to feel safe.

The IVC places much higher demands on the composition of the repertoire, the longer list consists of three periods and requires three works from after 1915. In addition, the candidates must learn a new work by a Dutch composer.

We use the “Triple D” method: “Discover”, “Develop” (master classes, training session, feedback by jury members in personal conversations) and “Deal” (making contact with impresarios, concert directors and casting directors).

Let me make it clear that I don’t believe in hidden agendas or cheating jurors. I have no experience with that. I have now led three competitions and I have a lot of respect for jury members who really care about the singers and have conversations about the profession and the possible place the singer can take in it. There are singers who still have contact with jury members and on their advice have found a coach.

The jury at the IVC consists of singers/musicians who at the end of their career share their knowledge and often their network and want to share it with the young generation. In addition, casting directors or agents and intendants who you know want to help young people at the beginning of their careers. And not only because a young soloist would be ‘cheap’.

I think that the usefulness of a competition lies in meeting like-minded people, the conversations, listening to colleagues, learning repertoire from the other voice types, making friendships, making contacts and mirroring yourself to the other. There are so many singers on offer that it is good to be seen and heard in certain places and a competition could be that place. Top talent always comes to the fore.

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator

In Dutch:
ZANGCONCOURSEN: PRO’S EN CONTRA’S

Igor Levit and his Beethoven-project: “I do not feel like a servant, but I do not feel like anybody’s master either.”

Levit

On 17 December 2019 Ludwig van Beethoven will celebrate his 250th birthday. An occasion this big calls for a big party, so that is what we will get. There will be an abundance of concerts, recitals and recordings to choose from. Of all the projects we are about to be inundated with, there is one that appeals to me personally the most: the recording of all of his piano sonatas by Igor Levit.

What do we know about Igor Levit? He was born in 1987 in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia. He started piano lessons at the age of three and had already achieved enormous successes as a child. In 1995 the Levit family left for Germany, where he graduated from the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover in 2009. I heard him for the first time on recordings from the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv in 2005. At that time he was the youngest participant ever and he won the second prize, the chamber music prize, the audience prize and the prize for the best performance of a contemporary work. He looked timid and shy, but as an audience member you were not only enchanted by him but also drawn to him.

Levit plays Beethoven in Tel Aviv:

I decided to follow this young artist as much as possible. When Sony contracted him and they brought out an album with Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, I was extremely pleased! It was a huge gamble for Sony. Imagine: when you’re in your twenties choosing Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas for your debut album! You really need to have guts to do that. But it could also be conceived as arrogant. Didn’t most pianists have to wait until they reached a certain age to try their hand at the last sonatas?

The result was overwhelming. The album won several prizes in 2014, including an ECHO Klassik, when that prize was still taken seriously. And the prizes continued: in October 2015 his CD with works by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewsky was chosen as Recording of the Year at the 2016 Gramophone Classical Music Awards. In 2018 Levit received the prestigious Gilmore Award and was named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’.

Levit’s interpretations of Beethoven are quite idiosyncratic, that’s true, but also greatly exciting! That is why Levit is so outspoken about the role of the interpreter. A quote from the pianist’s passionate interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

“So you are against the widespread ideal that the interpreter is first and foremost the servant of the score?

I do not feel like a servant, but I do not feel like anybody’s master either. For me, the question is not: what would we be without the composers, but instead: what would the composers be without us? The interpretation is my personal reaction to the information I receive through the notes. But this information is sometimes so full of uncertainties that I have to think about it carefully. A performance never works one-on-one. Beethoven’s case is extra complicated because he tried to escape from his time in order to create something different, something new.”

Igor Levit about ‘the project’:

“For me, this recording is the conclusion of the past fifteen years. It started with my ‘encounter’ with the Diabelli Variations when I was seventeen years old, something that changed my life and that actually continues until now, because I live with his music every day. With Beethoven’s sonatas, but also with Beethoven himself and with how all this has influenced the world in which I live and myself. Everything together led to this recording. What began in 2013 with the recording of Beethoven’s last five sonatas, I can now conclude. It fills me with great happiness and at the same time it feels like a new beginning. “

Levit piano

© Sony

I can only add that Igor Levits’ vision of Beethoven has also changed my world. Raised with Gulda, Kempff, Schnabel and Barenboim – all greats that are still at the top of my list – I have suddenly discovered a totally new vision. No, in interpretation there are no absolute truths. Just listen to the ‘Adagio sostenuto’ from the Monscheinsonate. You rarely hear it so sweet, so tender, but at the same time not ‘weak.’ For me it felt like hearing the sonata for the first time in my life.

On Sunday 9 February 2020 Levit will make his long-awaited debut in the Master Pianists series at the Concertgebouw. It will be a very special recital, because he will, of course, not only play Beethoven’s last two sonatas, but also an arrangement for piano of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Something to really look forward to!


Beethoven – Piano Sonatas (Complete)
Igor Levit – Piano
Sony Classical, CD 19075843182 (9cd’s)

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator

The Songs Of Reynaldo Hahn On Palazzetto Bru Zane

The Palazzetto Bru Zane edition of Reynaldo Hahn's complete songs, with baritone Tassis Christoyannis and pianist Jeff Cohen.

For many, he’s just another famous representative of the Belle Époque, but there are few people that really know much about him, let alone about his music. He went down in history as the lover of Marcel Proust, but Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was much more than that. And here is a 4 CD set of his melodies that allows you to rediscover the man and his music afresh

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Hahn was the son of a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother of Spanish-Basque origin. Apart from being a pianist and composer, Hahn was a highly esteemed conductor; know among other things for his Mozart interpretations. He was also a critic, writing for the newspaper Le Figaro; he wrote books on music, and in 1945 he was appointed director of the Paris Opéra.

When he arrived in Paris – on his own – he was but four years old. He was sent there because his father was threatened by the politics of president Antonio Guzmán Blanco. At the age of 11 Hahn began to study music at the Paris conservatory and became a student of Jules Massenet.

The young Reynaldo Hahn (l.) and his lover Marcel Proust

The young Reynaldo Hahn (l.) and his lover Marcel Proust

Hahn’s career florished mostly in Paris and in aristocratic circles, he was a welcomed guest in the world of salons, most notably that of the eccentric Princess Mathilde (Napoleon’s niece),accompanying himself on the piano as he sang arias by Jacques Offenbach. At the age of eight, Hahn composed his first songs. And of course he sang it, too. As he did his many other songs that followed over the years.

Marcel Proust famously wrote about Hahn and his singing: “His head a little thrown back, his mouth mournful and slightly indignant, from where flowed, rhythmically, the most beautiful, the saddest and warmest voice that never existed.”

Reynaldo Hahn sitting at the piano, painted by Lucie Lambert in 1907.

Reynaldo Hahn sitting at the piano, painted by Lucie Lambert in 1907.

Jean Cocteau added: “He sang with a cigarette positioned in the corner of his mouth, delivering his delightful voice from the other part, the eyes painting towards the sky.”

Hahn composed more than 100 songs that are rarely performed today. Why?

Don’t ask me, because I find them wonderful. All of them. And that is something everyone can now experience thanks to Palazzetto Bru Zane who have issued them in a box set, many of them in world premiere recordings.

Just listen to the song cycle Chansons grises based on poems by Paul Verlaine. What a discovery it is to hear these for the first time!

In the beginning I was worried that the songs might become a little monotonous with just one singer all the way through. But I was surprised and easily convinced of the opposite. Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis has precicely the right timbre to do justice to these songs: light, elegant, and very sensual in a way that made me think of Gerard Souzay, again and again.

Christoyannis’ interpretation is polished and perfect, and for every song he finds a different shading, a new tone. And my God – it is beautiful. For me, this is the CD of the year.

A caricature of Reynaldo Hahn as Beau Brummell by Rip (Georges Gabriel Thenon), 1931.

A caricature of Reynaldo Hahn as Beau Brummell by Rip (Georges Gabriel Thenon), 1931.

 

I recently read somewhere that we may expect more Hahn on disc soon. His operas L’Ile du Reve and La Carmelite are on the to-do list of Palazzetto Bru Zane, the be recorded live. All I can say about that is: please don’t forget to include his operettas Ciboulette (1923) or Brummell (1931) about the infamous British dandy Beau Brummel (1778-1840).

Not to mention Hahn’s other musical comedies, such as Mozart (1925) or O mon bel inconnu (1933), Une Revue (1925) and Malvina (1935). Some of them are available in historic French recordings, but a fresh and new interpretation would be very welcome.

English translation: Kevin Clarke

http://operetta-research-center.org/melodies-reynaldo-hahn/?fbclid=IwAR1kbpjk3refYMhiIorfhuPInm7t-Zo7c9dS6tyR9K1tKB4BAUqDLV05k7s

In Dutch:
Weergaloze liederen van Reynaldo Hahn weergaloos uitgevoerd door Tassis Christoyannis en Jeff Cohen

Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 4: ‘Warum hast du mir nicht gesagt…’

EINE FLORENTINISCHE TRAGÖDIE

zemlinsky FT Wacik klein

Bianca, the attractive wife of the merchant Simone is having an affair with the beautiful prince Guido Bardi. Simone catches them and challenges Guido to a duel with swords and eventually strangles him with his bare hands.  His wife looks at him admirably: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so strong?” In turn, Simone becomes aware of the beauty of his wife: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so beautiful…”

Zemlinsky Oscar_Wilde_portrait

Oscar Wilde

Eine Florentinische Tragödie  is based on the last play by Oscar Wilde. The beginning of the play is missing: the manuscript was stolen when Wilde went to prison. Zemlinsky solved the problem by composing a prologue to suggest the love scene between Bianca and Guido.

The opera, which premiered in 1917, provided a lot of gossip. “Eine autobiografische Tragödie” (An autobiographical Tragedy) was the headline of the Vienna Zeitung article by Edwin Baumgartner. Alma Mahler was not amused. She was certain that Zemlinsky had depicted her affair with Walter Groppius.

Mathilde Schönberg Zemlinsky with child

and with her husband

The Viennese public, on the other hand, thought it was about Schönberg and his wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky’s sister. Mathilde had left her husband for the young painter Richard Gerstl.

Zemlinsky Gerstl_-_Bildnis_Mathilde_Schönberg

Mathilde Schönberg with child. Painting by Gerstl

When she returned to her husband, Gerstl committed suicide, he was only 25 years old

Zemlinsky Gerstl

Richard Gerstl: ‘Selbstbildnis (“Akt in ganzer Figur’) from 1908. Courtesy Leopold Museum / Neue Galerie

All in the family in the best tradition, so to speak.

But what do you think: can you consider a fictional character in a work of art as the alter ego of its creator? Do you want to project a composer’s course of life onto the opera he has composed? How far do you involve life in art?

In a letter to Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky wrote that “a life had to be sacrificed in order to save the lives of two others.” But does this immediately make this the central theme of this opera, as many critics write? I don’t know.

One thing is certain: Eine Florentinische Tragödie can be listened to as an exciting, dark thriller, in which you do not sympathize with any of the characters.

Zemlinsky Tragedie Chailly

In 1997 Decca included the opera in their now expired series ‘Entartete Musik’. Riccardo Chailly conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca 4551122).

In the same year there was also a (live) recording of the Cologne Gürzenich-Orchester conducted by their then chief conductor James Conlon (once on EMI).

ZemllinskyConlonFRONT-1

Both recordings are good and I wouldn’t know which one to choose. Chailly’s orchestral sound is fuller and the strings sound more pleasant, but Conlon is undeniably more exciting, perhaps because it was recorded live.

The sound of the Cologne orchestra is more sensual, the sound of the RCO is darker. The singers are equally good in both recordings, although I find David Kuebler (Guido at Conlon) much more pleasant than the slightly shrill Heinz Kruse for Chailly.

Iris Vermillion for Chailly sounds nicer and warmer than Deborah Voigt for Conlon, but the latter has more sex appeal. In the role of Guido, Albert Dohmen (Chailly) is by far preferable to the not entirely idiomatic Donnie Ray Albert.

ZemlinskyCD Jurowski

In 2010 Eine Florentinische Tragödie was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the very inspiring leadership of Vladimir Jurowsky (LPO-0078). Albert Dohmen is back: his Simone sounds even more impressive than on Decca.

Sergey Skorokhodov’s Guido is a wimp and no match for the macho Dohmen. A Don Ottavio who will take on Hunding, so to speak. Heike Wessels (Bianca) is a mistake.

On YouTube you can find many (fragments) of live performances of the opera, among others from Lyon:

Frühlingsbegräbnis, the cantata that brought Zemlinsky into contact with Alma Mahler.

Zemlinsky cantate fruhling

This cantata is (was?) available on CD, performed very well by the Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne, conducted by James Conlon, with the soprano Deborah Voigt and the baritone Donnie Ray Albert as soloists.  I love this work, it reminds me a little of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches requiem. The cantata was once coupled with several other unknown works by Zemlinsky, who all had their record premieres here: “Cymbeline”-Suite, after lyrics of Shakespeare and Ein Tanzpoem. Unfortunately…. Even YouTube has removed this recording, so second hand (or asking a friend who owns it for a copy) remains the only option.

Strangely enough Frühlingsbegräbnis by Conlon is on Spotify, but in combination with Psalms and Hochzeitgesang in a totally different performance:

On Spotify you can also listen to the recording under Antony Beaumont. The performance is less beautiful than that of Conlon but certainly not bad:

Cymbeline by Conlon can be found on You Tube:

James Conlon about Zemlinsky (and Ullmann):

“The music of Alexander Zemlinsky and Viktor Ullmann remained hidden for decades by the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Nazi regime […] Full recognition of their works and talent is still lacking, more than 70 years after their death […] Their lives and personal histories were tragic, but their music transcends it all. It is up to us to appreciate their story in its full historical and artistic context.”

Literature consulted:
Antony Beaumont: Zemlinsky
Michael Haas: Forbidden Music. The Jewish Composers banned by the Nazis

ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY. Part 1: The Man

Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 2: ‘Du bist mein Eigen.’

Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 3: dreams and the happiness that needs to be hidden