Exceptional performances of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky in Vienna’s Musikverein

AustriaAustria Schoenberg and Zemlinsky: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Vienna Symphony Orchestra / Patrick Hahn (conductor). Musikverein, Vienna, 5.6.2024. (MB)

Patrick Hahn rehearsing the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the Musikverein

Schoenberg – Erwartung, Op.17
Zemlinsky – Die Seejungfrau

What is Schoenberg’s single greatest work? It is a silly question, at least as silly as asking the same of Mahler, of Webern, or of Boulez. Sometimes we ask ourselves silly questions, though; I suspect that Erwartung would come pretty close to the top of any aggregate list for Schoenbergians. Written over an extraordinarily short period of time – Schoenberg was often, though not always, like that – the monodrama comes from his Wunderjahr of 1909. However, it had to wait until 1924 for its first performance, in Prague on 6 June, conducted by the composer’s great friend, advocate, and brother-in-law (I think we can still count him as such, though Mathilde Schönberg had died the previous year) Alexander von Zemlinsky. This Musikverein performance, by Dorothea Röschmann, the Vienna Symphony, and Patrick Hahn, must surely therefore have been the last of its first century-in-performance, coming as it did on 5 June 2024. Aptly enough for so prophetic yet historically rooted a work, its successor the following evening would inaugurate a new performing century.

This, at any rate, made for a glorious finale that could also look forward, surely the equal of any performance I have heard and the superior of many, whether live or on record. In his 150th year, Schoenberg’s place as the single most important – not necessarily ‘greatest’, whatever that may mean, though certainly a serious contender for that too – composer of the twentieth century is assured. It always was: however, it has still not translated into broader acceptance from a frankly doltish public. (That his rejection is often, even usually, laced with antisemitism, unconscious as much as conscious, makes it worse; but let us leave that aside for now.)

First and far from least, it was beautifully sung by Röschmann: beauty, song, and beauty of singing all being involved there. It was astonishingly accurate too, and not only in the vocal part, though one could have taken dictation from it had, somehow, one not been swept away by the experience. Hahn’s expert balancing of the lines – always a tricky, in another sense unsung, business in the music of the Second Viennese School – was such that one almost did not realise he was doing it. That was also, naturally, the accomplishment of the golden-toned VSO, here moreover sounding every bit as ‘Viennese’ as their Philharmonic cousins (to whom I am sure they are rightly fed up with being compared). Structure, moreover, was as at least clear as I can recall, Schoenberg’s scenic division of the work, the fourth and final scene far longer than the others, uncommonly apparent and dramatically meaningful, without making the performance seem anything but a convincing whole. Climaxes were, well, as climactic as one could hope, and then some; yet always something was shifting, conclusion or, as we might now say, ‘closure’, never on the horizon.

Music arose from drama, and vice versa. Schoenberg never points in merely one direction; nor did he here. The whirlwind third scene in particular seemed but a stone’s throw, if that, from the later Schoenberg of, say, the almost-never-performed Op.22 Four Orchestral Songs, yet there was always much of earlier writing too: for instance, the Op.8 Six Orchestral Songs and, indeed, Gurrelieder. As we entered the final scene, Röschmann edged closer at times to Sprechgesang, yet only at times. Later, the opera – for let us never forget it is one – seemed to come close to Wozzeck’s Marie, at least in the voice, for the orchestral writing rightly sounded very different. The chill of the strings following ‘Ich will das nicht … nein, ich will nicht …’ offered aftershock that was terrible, even terrifying, indeed, initiating certain intimations, so it seemed, of Pierrot lunaire. There was great tenderness too; how could one not sympathise with this protagonist? One truly felt, moreover, the transformation of the ‘Dämmerung’ to which she referred toward the end, in a musical breeze that testified to Schoenberg’s mastery of orchestration as well as masterly orchestral playing. And the musical upward spiral with which the score came to a close, if not closure, was just the thing: tantalisingly brief, yet saying all that could be said or played.

What, then, is Zemlinsky’s single greatest work? I am not sure it is quite so silly a question; the Lyric Symphony would probably have no serious rival in any survey, though it might still beg the question, ‘why are you asking?’ One possible answer might be to help understand why other works by the composer have never quite lived up to its renown, though the operas again seem to be experiencing some of a revival. The symphonic poem – his only one – Die Seejungfrau is also faring better now, though its chequered genesis will probably always count against it. Zemlinsky withdrew the score after only three performances and suppressed it.

The unpublished score was divided, the first movement given to Zemlinsky’s friend Marie Pappenheim, also Schoenberg’s librettist for Erwartung. Zemlinsky retained the second and third movements, taking them with him when leaving Europe for the United States in 1938. Only in the early 1980s did scholars come to realise that the three movements belonged together. Die Seejungfrau was finally published, receiving its first ‘modern’ performance, conducted by one of those scholars, Peter Gülke, only in 1984. It may not be a masterpiece – it can, to be brutally honest, be a little repetitive at times and would, unsurprisingly, have benefited from revision – but it is still very well worth hearing, especially in a performance such as this.

Zemlinsky’s method of motivic transformation came very much to the fore, Hahn showing himself as accomplished a Zemlinskian as a Schoenbergian, building tension here, especially in the first movement, as expertly as he had in Erwartung. In some respects, the work came to resemble a wordless, voiceless opera. Its sepulchral (subaquatic) opening here had something in common with Richard Strauss, without ever reducing itself to imitation or ‘likeness’; any similarities, throughout the score, were just that, no more. Perhaps the closest kinship – this has struck me before – was with Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. Maybe there is some influence there – its first performance came in 1901 – but it was actually the first, long unperformed part of Mahler’s score that more often came to mind, so let us banish any thought of derivation and celebrate commonality. Pacing and balance were equally impressive here, and how the orchestra shimmered, glowed, and glistened, as if the waters were first awaiting and then celebrating the arrival of the mermaid and her subjectivity. Opposing and complementary material were deftly shaped, again with a keen ear for drama, in the second movement. The twin return to darkness and progress to something approaching transfiguration of the third both offered an intriguing echo of Tannhäuser and built to a grand climax and further shadows of its own. For both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, it was not a case of either/or.

Mark Berry

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