Songs by Zemlinsky

Hermine Haselböck (mezzo-soprano); Florian Henschel (piano) (Bridge 9244)

23 August 2008 4 stars

Zemlinsky SongsRecorded as far back as 2003, this excellent recital of Zemlinsky songs has already been in the catalogue once (on Pan Classics). However, its re-release on the enterprising American label, Bridge, is extremely welcome.

Austrian mezzo Hermine Haselböck is an extremely fine singer and, along with her responsive pianist Florian Henschel, she makes as good a case for these songs as possible. The recorded sound is excellent and although the lengthy booklet essay takes some unravelling and the cover-art is less than enticing, full texts and translations of the songs are provided.

The programme itself gives a good overview of some of Zemlinsky's finest songs, ranging from the broad romanticism of the Seven Songs of 1889-90 – whose concluding setting of Eichendorff's 'Waldgespräch' is only the most obvious sign of Schumann's influence – to six more experimental Maeterlinck settings from 1910-13. In addition we have the delightful Op.6 Waltz-songs (settings of 'Tuscan folk lyrics' by Ferdinand Gregorovius), five songs from 1895-96 and two Brettl-Lieder from 1901.

Throughout the whole disc, Zemlinsky's craftsmanship is amply demonstrated; although he was a composer who few would assign the tag genius, his talent was immense and governed by a keenly intelligent, highly musical mind. This is clear from the early seven songs, the product of his late teens, which although essentially derivative in style, are produced with consummate artistry and skill. 'Liebe un Frühling' is suitably ardent, the surging passion of its piano accompaniment beautifully captured whilst 'Weben und Leben' has a the same pulsing urgency as Schumann's 'Frühlingsnacht', from the Op.39 Liederkreis. Zemlinsky's own voice though is very much to the fore in 'Waldesgespräch', the Eichendorff setting also famously set in Schumann's Liederkreis. Producing a reaction to the text that is dark and brooding from the start, this is another fine song, performed with total dramatic conviction by Haselböck.

The later settings of typically enigmatic Maeterlinck verses – in Friedrich von Oppel-Bronikowski's German translations – show how much both Zemlinsky and the musical world around him had developed in the intervening two decades. Originally hailed as Brahms's successor, we now see him attempting to reconcile form and an essentially romantic sensibility with heady, post-Wagnerian chromaticism. Although the results are not always free from a slight uneasiness, these songs still contain a lot of haunting music. However, the gently undulating dissonances of 'Sie kam zum Schloß gegangen' make this lovely narrative song, for me, the highlight of the group.

The delightful Walzergesänge Op.6 might not achieve the same reconciliation of Italianate delicacy and Wagnerian harmonic adventurousness that Wolf achieved in his Italian Songbook but they are still highly attractive songs. 'Liebe Schwalbe' achieves a rare artlessness of melody while 'Ich geh' des Nachts', less than a minute long, is surprisingly dark but miraculously compact. Of the further five posthumous songs included, 'Süße, süße Sommernacht' is another gem, written in a gentle, popular idiom. Brahms's influence is at its most apparent in a delicious progression – reminiscent of parts of the older composer's 'Die Mainacht' – which creeps into the second verse of 'Der Tag wird kühl', a wonderful song replete with a thrilling, romantic outburst on the piano. Zemlinsky's popular touch is again in evidence with the two Cabaret Songs that complete the disc.

Haselböck's interpretations, all captured in clear and faithful sound, are highly persuasive and she possesses a fine instrument, used with intelligence and unfailing musicality. Although Zemlinsky's voice is one that's always going to struggle to be heard against those of his more illustrious contemporaries, this disc provides proof, if it's needed, of his considerable skill in this most exacting genre.

By Hugo Shirley