Music on CD

Alexander von Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy. Alma Mahler: Lieder Soloists, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly Decca 455 112-2
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At the close of A Florentine Tragedy, a merchant and his wife find each other over the dead body of her lover. A stale marriage is reawakened, desire rekindled. "Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" says the wife. "Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?" says the merchant.

Welcome to the hothouse. Words by Oscar Wilde, music by Alexander von Zemlinsky, inspiration by Richard Strauss. This is the house that Strauss built. Political incorrectness was fostered and festered here. Wilde put on stage the situations, the unspeakable desires, the unpalatable truths, the hypocrisies, the lust, the deceit, that others dared not even admit to thinking.

And he found its music in fin de siecle Vienna. When the merchant rolls out his fine silks to goad, to mock, to shame his wife's lover, this might be Herod coaxing Salome, lustrous orchestral textures shot through with a sickly iridescence. Imagine an opening page where Elektra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier are cross-bred in unholy alliance. Imagine a score whose surface sheen is a lavish lie, the shadow of deceit slowly extinguishing it. All right, so it isn't Strauss, it isn't in that league, but there is potency in this little one-acter, a potency that Albert Dohmen, Heinz Kruse and Iris Vermillion - the other unholy trinity - realise to the full. Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw convey a great deal more than that which first meets the ear. I'm glad to have heard them do so at least once.

Once is not enough for the songs by Alma Mahler. Shame on Gustav for suppressing this talent until it was too late. Who knows, she might have shown even him a thing or two. These songs are all notable for their immediacy and their succinctness. Emotion is turned on a single inflection, words begetting melody as if simply not complete without it. They have a tinta, a melodic character, all of their own, though with Zemlinsky as her teacher and young Schoenberg close by, something was bound to rub off. "The whole sky glows" in Erntelied ("Harvest Song"), a song in full bloom, a song about joy in the well-being of creation, and, yes, I did catch a glimpse of Gurrelieder's sunrise.