During the four years that separated Alexander Zemlinsky's Symphony in D minor and the premiere of the Symphony in B flat major (his first two efforts in the genre, aside from an incomplete work penned during his student years), the young composer had caught the eye and the fancy of the Viennese musical world. "The work's fresh, original ideas and genuinely exalted, youthful fire made a great impression on the audience and unleashed an intense salvo of applause," wrote one critic in response to the 1896 premiere of Zemlinsky's Waldegespräch (for soprano and chamber ensemble). These years also saw Zemlinsky winning two prestigious awards, the Luitpold Prize and the Beethoven Prize. His compositional skills had been refined during the mid 1890s as well. The Suite for Orchestra from 1895, for example, gave Zemlinsky an opportunity to create more adventurous orchestral colors than had been found in the admirable but conservative D minor Symphony. Thus, when one compares the B flat Symphony to his earlier symphonic effort, one notices that, while the same amalgamation of influences and styles is represented, more of the composer's own voice comes through – prompting one observer to suggest two different ways of looking at the work: "either as Zemlinsky's last early work or his first mature one."
Zemlinsky's Die Seejungfrau ("The mermaid") is a three-movement symphonic fantasy based on the Hans Andersen story. It was first performed (under the composer's direction) in 1905, and is thus a good deal earlier than the works that have recently excited renewed interest in him—the oneact operas Eine florentinische TragOdie (1916) and Der Zwerg (1921), and the exquisite Lyric Symphony of 1922. In its masterly handling of a large orchestra, however, and of an episodic but firm structure, it is a far from immature piece. Zemlinsky was 34 when he wrote it, after all. If his list of works were not in such a terrible mess—many are unpublished; several, including the present work, were until recently thought to be lost—Die Seejungfrau would count as his Op. 30 or thereabouts.
Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy is a disturbing, shocking piece, but to make its fullest impact it also needs to sound ravishingly beautiful. As the wealthy merchant Simone shows Count Bardi (his wife’s lover, as he already suspects) a robe of silver damask so exquisitely wrought with roses “that they lack perfume only to cheat the wanton sense” or, later, describes to him another of Venetian cut velvet patterned with pomegranates each seed of which is a pearl, we should almost be able to see these marvels. Zemlinsky’s sumptuous scoring at these points urgently needs, in short, an orchestra of the Royal Concertgebouw’s stature, and in this reading they sound quite magnificent.
These first complete recordings of the string quartets of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky have won numerous international awards and been hailed as landmarks in the discography of 20th-century music. Impeccable ensemble, superbly blended timbre and pure intonation ….This set [Schoenberg, Berg, Webern] is indeed a wonderful achievement (MusicWeb International). Febrile intensity and faultless proportioning of each formal structure [Zemlinsky] (Guardian).
When Antonin Dvorák learned to compose, he did it the old-fashioned way – by composing. Although he had written numerous shorter works earlier, the 20-year-old Bohemian bestowed his Opus 1 on a three-movement String Quintet in A minor for pairs of violins and violas plus cello in 1861. The next year, he turned out his Opus 2, a four-movement String Quartet in A major, and over the next 12 years, he wrote six more string quartets. Through them, the listener can follow Dvorák's progress from a talented amateur with an inexhaustible gift for melody and little feel for form to an almost-ready-for-the-big-time composer who'd learned to tighten his structures and control his gift for melody.