Next month Naxos of America will release a recording of the complete piano music composed by Alexander von Zemlinsky, currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com or for immediate download from ClassicsOnline. These “complete works” fit on a single compact disc; and other recordings are available, including one on the Naxos label recorded by pianist Silke Avenhaus and released in 2005. This new album was recorded this past January for Brilliant Classics by Emanuele Torquati at the Auditorium San Rocco in Ancona, Italy. All the composition titles are the same on both releases; but Torquati’s features the world premiere recording of the second version of “Ein Lichtstrahl” (a ray of light), which, to judge by the timing on both recordings, involved streamlining the original version. Brilliant Classics chose to highlight this feature by calling their new album A Ray of Light.
Considering the brevity of all the other works on the program, this final track definitely deserves attention. Zemlinsky composed the original version in 1901 for piano accompaniment to a mime drama. The scenario involves a rather typical love-triangle plot, whose characters are identified only as He (husband), She (wife), and The Other (wife’s lover). The only specified prop is a large wardrobe in a simply furnished room, which the lover uses as a hiding place. The title refers to the fact that, as night falls, the husband discovers the lover by seeing a ray of light coming from inside the wardrobe. Zemlinsky subsequently revised his score the following year.
Regular readers will probably recognize a “family resemblance” (so to speak) between this plot and that of Zemlinsky’s Opus 16 one-act opera Eine florentinische Tragödie, which he composed in 1916. However, the music for “Ein Lichtstrahl” is hardly as outrageous as the later opera score, whose depiction of sexual congress is even more explicit than the orchestral introduction to Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier. As Anthony Beaumont, Zemlinsky’s biographer, observes, “Ein Lichtstrahl” seems to anticipate the sort of piano music that would later be used to accompany highly dramatic silent films.
When compared to the rest of Zemlinsky’s piano compositions, however, “Ein Lichtstrahl” is a bit overwrought, particularly when approached only for the sake of listening. Of far greater interest are his earlier and much shorter pieces, many of which clearly show the influence of Johannes Brahms but still establish their own unique qualities. From a historical point of view, there is also much to be gained from listening to Zemlinsky’s Opus 9. Composed in 1898, these are four short “fantasies,” each based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. Readers may recall that Dehmel was the author of the poem “Verklärte Nacht;” and Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 is very much in the spirit of Zemlinsky’s fantasies but composed on a far more extended scale to accommodate a much longer poem. Since Schoenberg composed his Opus 4 in 1899 and since Zemlinsky had been his counterpoint teacher, there is a good chance that Schoenberg was inspired by Zemlinsky’s efforts with shorter Dehmel poems.
Torquati’s performances of all of the compositions on this recording are clear, technically sound, and always appropriately expressive of the spirit behind the music. From a scholarly point of view, I also have to admit a preference for this new recording, because the producers have taken the trouble to arrange all of the compositions in chronological order (which was not the case on the Avenhaus recording). I feel this is a valuable approach because the listener can appreciate the extent to which Zemlinsky progressed from drawing upon the influence of his predecessors to finding his own unique voice. That sense of progress makes this recording provide a particularly satisfying overall listening experience.