At Blossom, a Zemlinsky Rarity Outshines a Usual Suspect

United StatesUnited States Blossom Festival [4]: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 3.8.2019. (MSJ)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73 (‘Emperor’)

ZemlinskyDie Seejungfrau (The Mermaid)

Compared to the adventurous season upcoming, this summer’s Blossom Music Festival by the Cleveland Orchestra is heavy on predictable crowd-pleasers. One rare but delightful exception came with the return of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). It is an important visitor to this orchestra, which gave the U.S. premiere in 1987, an astonishing 84 years after the work was finished.

As background, the composer suffered a crisis in confidence. An admirer and follower of Gustav Mahler, Zemlinsky was crushed in 1901 when his lover, Alma Schindler, dropped him and married Mahler instead. Zemlinsky was heartbroken, and even worse, felt that Alma was right to abandon him in favor of his charismatic idol. Die Seejungfrau was Zemlinsky’s therapy — identifying with the mermaid devastated by an impossible love.

In 1903 the work was finished and premiered on a double bill with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande — coincidentally, also recently performed by the Clevelanders. In bringing back the Zemlinsky, the orchestra rightly turned a tide that had favored the labored Schoenberg over the years. The fact is, the original 1903 Vienna audience clearly — and rightly — preferred the Zemlinsky tone poem. A masterpiece, it isn’t. And its flaws are numerous. That is no doubt why the composer later withdrew it, and why the score was thought lost until the original orchestral parts were discovered in the 1980s.

In 1987, when the orchestra’s music director Christoph von Dohnányi decided to give the U.S. premiere, he made the odd choice of placing it alongside Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which made it necessary to abridge the Zemlinsky. Nonetheless, even in shortened form it was clear that the latter was full of charm, wonder, and sentiment. I know, because I was there, at one of my very first concerts of this great orchestra, when I fell in love with both the piece and the ensemble, and that admiration continues to this day.

It is a shame that the composer abandoned the score, because with some editing and tightening, it could have achieved greatness. As it stands, it meanders in places, follows arresting passages with mundane ones, and suffers from following Hans Christian Andersen’s episodic ups-and-downs a little too closely. But there are many moments of gorgeous scene painting and affecting moods to treasure. Interestingly, though Zemlinsky clearly knew his Richard Strauss, he painted colors with a lighter hand, and his sequences are moving without being as manic as Mahler. There is also a sense of light in Zemlinsky’s orchestrations that frankly sounds closer to the French or Russian schools than that of the grim Germans.

All this is to say that Die Seejungfrau is worth revisiting from time to time for its beguiling charm. Andrey Boreyko served as an experienced guide, with intimate knowledge of every twist and turn of the narrative. If in places his gestures were a little baroque, he was direct enough to offer clear leadership and orchestral textures. If the dramatic arc remained incomplete, it is a flaw of the work itself, but one that can be forgiven in its warmth of fantasy.

The orchestra savored the rich seascapes, as acting concertmaster Peter Otto brought the sentimental solos to life again and again, and the audience gave the results a warm response.

The warhorse of the evening was Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, with Francesco Piemontesi as soloist. I last heard him in Cleveland in the Mozart 27th Concerto, in an intimate exploration of light and dark. One could say that Piemontesi explored the Beethoven in a similar manner, except that the concerto doesn’t actually offer a great deal of range to explore. Call me a cynic, but I honestly think that Beethoven was so fixated on showing off his new, more sonorous piano that he forgot about substance in the writing. If the Emperor didn’t have that composer’s name on it, would we really hear it every season or so?

During the opening volleys of arpeggios, Piemontesi scowled and shook his head impressively, and approached intensity in the quiet second theme. Phrases were individually shaped, and the pianist made a genuine attempt to inject more significant argument. But the slow movement was not so much infinite as stillborn, definitely adagio but with not even un poco bit of mosso. The finale brought new energy, and the audience — who clearly liked the concerto a whole lot more than I do — roared its approval.

For an encore, Piemontesi played Schubert’s Impromptu No.2, which has more action in four minutes than Beethoven’s entire 40 minutes. It showed the pianist’s talents with considerably more character.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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