I think I’m safe in saying there is no satisfactory performance of this troubling work on record. Lorin Maazel undertook it for DG with minimal conductorial intervention, Michael Gielen released a live- and fairly lithe – radio recording and Riccardo Chailly broached it with the Concertgebouw in the early 1990s, which is as good as it got until now but not close enough for me to the heart of the Zemlinsky enigma.
The Lyric Symphony is the only major work to take the form of Das Lied von der Erde, with baritone and soprano instead of tenor and mezzo, but otherwise structurally and emotionally a tribute work to Mahler’s masterpiece. Where Mahler turned East to Ming Dynasty poets, his disciple Zemlinsky turned to the contemporary Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, presenting the work in 1923, a dozen years after Mahler’s death when Zemlinsky was music director at the German Theatre in Prague.
The difference between the two works is that Mahler, in Das Lied, tears himself apart over the impossibility of two humans ever connecting at the deepest level while Zemlinsky is more dewy-eyed on the meaning of friendship. Still, he touches the listener’s heart and this new recording by the Polish National Radio orchestra comes out tops. The German conductor Alexander Liebreich takes it at a fair clip, much brisker than Chailly, a gamble that pays off in pinpoint rhythms and total concentration. The soloists Johanna Winkel and Michael Nagy do nothing too dramatic, which is exactly as the piece should be sung, and the orchestra, recorded in Katowice’ new NOSPR hall, is absolutely first class, with crisp, transparent sound. Listen carefully and you will hear as many echoes of Mahler’s 5th and 9th symphonies as you do of Das Lied.
This benchmark performance is paired cleverly with Szymanowski’s first violin concerto, contemporary in both atmosphere and confusion, and with Elina Vähälä as soloist. Simply the best available.