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Recordings

ENNA: Lille pige med svovlstikkerne<br/>ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau
06 Dec 2006

ENNA: Lille pige med svovlstikkerne
ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau

Walt Disney has colored our perception of fairy tales, turning them, whatever their source, into egalitarian morality plays:

ENNA: Lille pige med svovlstikkerne
ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau

Inger Dam-Jensen, Ylva Kihlberg, Danish National Children's Choir, Danish National Choir, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (cond.)

Dacapo 8.226048 [CD]

$16.98  Click to buy

"When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are.
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you."
In the past couple of decades both The Little Match Girl and The Little Mermaid, fairytales by the legendary Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, have been transformed by Hollywood from tales of the thwarted hope of innocent souls into heartwarming tales of hope rewarded. The two late-romantic works presented in a new release on the Dacapo label place these beloved stories back into the crueler world that Andersen was most often wont to describe.

This recording grew from the Danish celebration of Andersen's bicentennial birthday, and features the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Dausgaard. The first composer on the menu is also Danish, and this was my first exposure to his music. August Enna was a largely self-taught composer who wrote 17 operas—some of which achieved considerable success during his lifetime. Enna's operas were inspired by his admiration for Richard Wagner, yet Enna was the more practical composer. While he wrote large scale works for the major theaters, he also penned more modest efforts aimed at provincial houses with limited resources, and it was in this mold that The Little Match Girl was conceived. History has a mind of its own, and though I suppose Enna might have guessed that he would be remembered for one of his grander efforts, it is by this modestly scaled work, written for two soloists and chorus, that he is best known today.

Enna’s score is melodic, skillfully woven, and easily accessible. The drama, brief as it is, grips the listener, and well evokes our sympathy for the little blond-haired orphan girl trying to sell matches to oblivious passers-by as she freezes to death on Christmas Eve, eventually hallucinating visions of happy children celebrating the holiday with toys and games. It is a bitter tale, only somewhat ameliorated by a final vision of the girl's white-robed mother descending from the sky on a marble staircase to take her child to heaven.

With the exception of a brief monologue sung by a happy mother who appears in one of the match-girl's hallucinations, the show is dominated by the girl herself, and Inger Dam-Jensen sings with the right note of earnestness and simplicity. The Little Match-Girl piqued my interest to hear other operas by Enna--maybe one of those larger scaled efforts. Sadly, there are no others commercially available, except for a competing account of The Little Match-Girl on the CPO label.

While Enna's opera is efficient and modest in its demands, Alexander Zemlinsky was a composer who never failed to write the word “art” with a capital "A"! From the first measures of his three movement 1903 "fantasy for orchestra" Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) the composer's ambition and gift for pictorial expression are fully in evidence. As the massive waves of orchestral sound roll over the ear, it's hard not to see, in the mind's eye, shafts of sunlight filtering down through the deep ultramarine and illuminating an endless forest of brilliant corals, fishes, and maybe an occasional mermaid or sea-witch!

Die Seejungfrau is the first of several Zemlinsky compositions to express the composer's agony at the loss of his love Alma Schindler, who dropped him abruptly shortly after meeting Gustav Mahler, whom she married a few months later. Zemlinsky would return to this experience for inspiration over the following two decades, with a final, more explicit expression of the tragic love affair in his 1922 opera Der Zwerg.

Die Seejungfrau was initially conceived as material for "a great symphony of death" in the aftermath of his rejection. Eventually it took form as a symphonic telling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, in which The Little Mermaid, as Zemlinsky had, reaches out for something wonderful but ultimately out of her reach. Unlike Disney’s animated version, here the mermaid does not marry the Prince, but rather, as the final bars so richly describe, throws herself back into the sea, where her body is united with the sea-foam.

Zemlinsky's symphonic fantasy premiered in 1905, paired with best friend Arnold Schoenberg's symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande. The concert was meant to be the first by a new musical society dedicated to the performance of new music, and founded by Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, with Mahler as honorary president. But the huge forces called for by both composers ended up bankrupting the society, which shortly thereafter disbanded. Die Seejungfrau was well received, but after a couple more performances in other cities, it fell from the repertory, and the score was eventually separated into two parts. It was assumed for many years that part of the score was lost, but, fortunately for us, it eventually resurfaced, and Zemlinsky's early masterwork was heard again for the first time in many decades in 1984. Since then, it has gone on to become the most performed of the composer’s compositions. As such, it has now been commercially recorded numerous times, and this new release will be competing with recorded accounts by James Conlon, Riccardo Chailly, Anthony Beaumont, and even an earlier account by Dausgaard himself with the Danish Radio Symphony. But the new recording holds its own, even with such big-time competition. The sound is vibrant and detailed, and Dausgaard well captures the emotional power of the score. Attractively packaged with multi-lingual notes and libretto, this new Dacapo release is well worth owning. My only complaint about the booklet is that the translations of the opera's libretto were placed on separate pages of the booklet, rather than being printed together in parallel, thus making it harder to follow the Danish text in detail.

Eric D. Anderson

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