Alexander von Zemlinsky:
Serenade for Violin and Piano in A major
Fantasie in C major, D 934, op. 159
Sonata No. 3 in D minor, op. 108
, violin · Herbert Schuch
Each of these two instrumentalists has a highly successful solo career; together, however, they maintain a violin/piano duo that fascinates listeners with meticulously worked-out, highly intense interpretations. For their first CD together, Mirijam Contzen and Herbert Schuch have selected works of composers who resided in 19th century Vienna. Schubert, Brahms and Zemlinsky represent three different generations of Viennese musical life, each with its own distinctive character. Schubert’s great C Major Fantasie is hardly ever heard in as concentrated and masterful a version; seldom is the work’s musical substance formulated as urgently as by this duo, which plays so well together. Zemlinsky’s charming, early “Serenade” is a true rarity of the chamber music repertoire, and certainly unknown by most listeners.
A “Viennese Recital”“
At the premiere of the Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major on January 20, 1828 in Vienna, the work’s reviewer obviously tried his best to avoid completely damning it. Instead, he put a certain ‘ironic’ distance between himself and the work and claimed not to have heard the end of the performance: “The Fantasie extended beyond the length of time the typical Viennese is wont to dedicate himself to intellectual pursuits. The hall gradually emptied, and this writer must confess that he too, as well, can say nothing about the end of the musical work.” The Fantasie’s
free form was apparently too free for the ear of a contemporary public trained to hear sonata-
form movements – at least on this evening. Although it does have a visible three-part sonata-
like form, Schubert structures his material as a sequence of melodic-thematic blocks instead of as dialectically laid out sonata-form elements. The middle of these blocks quotes one of his own songs (“Sei mir gegrüsst”, based on Friedrich
Rückert, D 741), which is then used as a source for further variations.
Almost 180 years after its somewhat unhappy
premiere, the Fantasie has become a cornerstone
of the violin repertoire, and the artist who succeeds in conveying the poetry of this music with the required insight and brilliance – but without any airs and graces – can be assured of still having a complete audience’s rapt attention during the turbulently ascending
final measures. It is almost a platitude, but Schubert’s musical language remains inexplicably
fascinating even to this day. Its apparent
simplicity contains emotional depths that can hardly be expressed in words. But it is not sadness, pain or contemplation that this Fantasie
confronts us with, but a mildly gleaming light that emits confidence and optimism.
A simple surface with a highly complex inner
life – the work’s interpreters must face this phenomenon as well. This apparently “simple”
music confronts both violinist and pianist with the highest technical demands. Schubert would certainly have been conscious of this fact, for he wrote his Fantasie for the Bohemian
violin virtuoso Joseph Slawjk, whom Chopin described as a “second Paganini”.
In his Serenade, Alexander Zemlinsky also uses a free form outside the classical sonata-form constraints. However, in contrast to Schubert’s
Fantasie (written one year before the composer’s
death), whose formal freedom was the result of years of struggle with musical materials
as Schubert searched for his own unique interpretation of traditional forms at the beginning
of the new romantic aesthetic, Zemlinsky’s
case is different. This early work, without opus number, does not yet divulge any of the composer’s later confrontation with the new currents of the age, i.e. Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School and his students, which would become characteristic of Zemlinsky’s
works. The struggle to develop forms, to determine a position between tradition and modernity and to develop an individual musical
language: all this lies before him. Shortly before, Zemlinsky had dared to try his hand at one of the major classical chamber music forms – a string quintet – but in the Serenade, the young composer returned to more well-known territory, possibly due to an encounter with his idol. Shortly before composing the Serenade, Zemlinsky met the object of his veneration,
Johannes Brahms – one of Vienna’s most famed
musical personalities as of 1880, and one whose word was worth its weight in gold when it came to fostering young talents. In fall 1895 it was Zemlinsky’s turn: he was invited by Brahms to present his String Quintet in D Minor. Brahms’ pronouncement – although he worded it in a friendly manner – had the power to shatter the student’s self-confidence. After uncovering the weak points of Zemlinsky’s sonata-form, Brahms brought none other than musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s string quintet into the discussion as the archetypical
sonata-form. He showed his student Mozart’s development and concluded with the words: “This is how it is done, from Bach to me.” Brahms was not known for having cast off his terse North German delivery in Vienna. This event triggered Zemlinsky’s life-long effort to approach modern compositional techniques without leaving the firm ground of tradition. At first, however, he was simply confused. For the time being, he wrote no new sonata-form movements, but worked instead on the Serenade,
performing it himself with violinist Rudolf Fitzner in January 1896 for the first time. Five movements in genre-style, highly varied, virtuosic,
with a distinctly pleasing tone, but also with a charm that places this work above the demanding prêt-a-porter compositions created
for the intellectual salons.
Perhaps the reason for the Serenade’s youthful momentum is that its composer does not ‘want’ anything, but is only expressing his joy in musical form with no compulsion to tread new paths for now.
Our program closes with a work by Zemlinsky’s
mentor. Johannes Brahms began composing
his Sonata in D Minor op. 108 in summer
1886, together with its sister work, the Sonata
in A Major op. 100. He didn’t complete it, however, until 1888. On December 21st of that year, he himself was the pianist in the work’s premiere, which took place in Budapest with violinist Jenö Hubay. Several weeks later, he performed it in Vienna for the first time with his friend Joseph Joachim. The sonata treats the classical form with an unstrained freedom;
compared to the Sonata in A Major, it is painted in richer, more passionate colors. With its density and instrumental demands, it comes very close to the borders of what was performable in the bourgeois chamber music settings of the time. The sound imagery, which exceeds the work’s chamber-musical instrumentation,
also alludes to conductor Hans von Bülow, to whom the work was dedicated and who was one of the first figures of the time to back Brahms’ works as well as to perform one of Brahms’ piano compositions.
Mirijam Contzen and Herbert Schuch present an unusual choice of repertoire here. All three works were written in 19th century Vienna, but their differences couldn’t be greater: composed
by three very diverse generations of composers, they demonstrate three types of forms and three wholly different musical characteristics
– the secretive, compulsive inner connections of Franz Schubert’s expansive Fantasie, the dancing melodies of Alexander Zemlinsky’s youthfully fresh Serenade and – actually, the only work from the standard repertoire on this recording – the late Sonata in D Minor op. 108 from Johannes Brahms, who decorates the Viennese violin tone with a dry color from the high north.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler