Rarely Heard Zemlinsky Is the Highlight as Xian Zhang Conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

  United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bartók, Nielsen, Zemlinsky. Gareth Davies (flute), London Symphony Orchestra, Xian Zhang. Barbican Hall, London, 9. 11. 2011 (CC)

Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin (Suite)
Nielsen Flute Concerto
Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”)

A rather mixed concert. I was raised on Pierre Boulez’ performances of Mandarin in London in the 1980s, performances of bite mixed with preternatural accuracy and textural delineation. The young Xian Zhang (who has recently taken over the helm of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi) had a sure grasp of the score and, like Boulez, can ensure textures do not become overcrowded. Yet there was an emotional restraint here that made Bartók sound, at times, post-Rimsky. At the other end of the spectrum, post-climactic frozen moments were only partially frozen. Too often, the edges of Bartók’s angular lines were softened and rounded, and colours were simply not vivid enough. This was a dreamscape rather than a nightmare. While the clarinet solos (Andrew Marriner) were well taken, they lacked the final ounce of magic an inspiring conductor could surely have secured. Disappointing. Interestingly, I found similar faults of reticence in Zhang’s UK operatic debut over at the Coliseum in Bohème back in 2007 (review).

Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, a charming piece dating from 1926, was given a sterling performance by Gareth Davies, the LSO’s principal flute. (He has also recorded the piece, with the Bournemouth SO, on Naxos 8.554189, reviewed by myself on Musicweb International way back in 2000.) Here, the LSO seemed to have a ball, particularly the strings, who really revelled in their almost-radiant themes. Davies’ timpani-underscored cadenza was itself a thing of joy, as was the pastoral-playful element of the finale (there are only two movements).. Contributions here by solo viola and solo bassoon both delighted.

The true highlight of the concert was the Zemlinsky, a rarely heard piece (live, at least). Zemlinsky’s music, despite several revivalist attempts, has always been overshadowed by Schoenberg’s (the latter was Zemlinsky’s pupil and brother-in-law). Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, with its pronounced aquatic subject matter, prefigures Debussy’s La mer in texture, while using a harmonic language that is close to the Schoenberg of Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky’s seascape is lush and decadent. Melodies arch and ache viscerally in unashamedly hyper-Romantic manner; harps swirl headily. For all this, and for all the drama, Zhang’s ability to project lines clearly enabled the music to never sound overblown or overscored. The more imaginative scorings (three solo violins against solo tuba in the second panel, for example) reminded one of Zemlinsky’s sensitive ear, while a cor anglais in the third movement injected Tristan-like longing into the equation. The darker side of the music was fully honoured in the final section. A triumphal performance, somewhat unexpectedly, given the first half’s lacklustre Bartók.

Colin Clarke