Bring back orchestral decadence, all is forgiven

Bring back orchestral decadence, all is forgiven


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2021

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Zemlinsky and Schreker went way over the top in their exploitation of orchestral texture, splashing every colour in the paintbox and squeezing the last drop of curdled angst from the interstices of strings and woodwinds, with violin solos to gloop it all together. It’s deliciously forbidden stuff, breaking several rules of common decency and so gender incorrect that the current thought police will fine anyone they hear whistling it.

Needless to say, this Covid-year album by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and their departing conductor Vasily Petrenko is demonstrably irresistible. Played with no stops pulled or holds barred, this is a wash of sound we have been dying to hear, if not in a live hall then on record. And when we do get back into a hall, I will be the first in line demanding to know why orchestras don’t play sounds like these that wet our lips, instead of tick-box works by marginal try-hards. Bring back orchestral decadence, all is forgiven.

More here.

And here.

En francais ici.

In Spanish here.

Czech it out.


  • John Borstlap says:

    A good sign.

    Makes me think of reactions I got to my own stuff with ‘…unashamedly beautiful’ and ‘…reminiscent of Schreker and fin de siècle Vienna at its most seductive’, and the crazy reaction by the artistic leader of a Berlijn orchestra: ‘It’s very beautiful but therefore we can’t perform it, since it does not reflect the concerns of our time’. Indeed, that sound world – which has nothing of the naughty decadence that Norman seems to suggest – is often considered as a scandalous attempt at sensual seduction, which can only be explained as resulting from an incredibly sterile Menschbild and world view, like the glass and steel architecture which destroys city landscapes all over the world.

    Schreker’s music is sometimes referred to as ‘vulgar’, which is nonsense; his early music is often over-romantic but always decent, and his later music is often suffused with expressive dissonance. A truly vulgar orchestral 20C music is, for instance, Messiaen’s Turangulila, but that never gets that accolade.

    Schreker is a most interesting composer, greatly underestimated and not enough performed. In terms of substance it is often a bit thin, but this is greatly compensated with all the other qualities that make his music attractive, impressive, and enjoyable. His operas are really great dramatic stuff. His fate in the twenties and thirties is heartbreaking – literally, being squeezed out of all his functions, deciding to flee to Portugal, an attempt cut short by a heart attack, because of years of unbearable stress – after a very successful career as one of the most celebrated and performed composers.

    • Stuart says:

      I downloaded this disc based on NL’s review and after listening to excerpts. Both performances are wonderful – not sure who would consider the Schecker ‘vulgar’ (though I wouldn’t apply that term to Messiaen’s Turangulila Symphony). I have listened to a couple of Schreker’s operas, especially Die Gezeichneten but I have never warmed to them. Probably the same is true of Zemlinsky’s operas – the Zemlinsky that I love are the string quartets, especially the 2nd.

  • Gustavo says:


    Together with John Williams in Vienna.

  • chris daisley says:

    I like Schreker’s music. However if think the problem is he started off with a splendid modern-day opera, Der ferne Klang, and then went backwards to princesses, counts and dukes. Even Irrelohe which starts so promisingly among the lower orders has reverted to a wedding in a castle by the end – the third act does not live up to the previous acts. Nevertheless, there is an enormous amount of great music and he is never boring.

  • V.Lind says:

    What a very louche review. Pass the absinthe and mind my Fortuny dress.

    By the way, is this dead accurate in your bio-line? “He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3…” Is that still on? There are 8 available, but they appear to date from 2012.

  • SMH says:

    It’s taken close to a century, but the ugliest man of Genoa has at last crossed the Atlantic. He is Alviano Salvago, who is also described as “an ugly hunchback, about thirty years old, with large shinning eyes.” He is stigmatized, branded, marked, drawn. He is weak and revolting in a society obsessed with physical pleasure. He also happens to own an island where there are all manner of nasty goings on from which he gets some sort of creepy vicarious thrill in the name of the classical pursuit of beauty.

    He is the pathetic protagonist of Franz Schreker’s deliriously dissolute “Die Gezeichneten,” which Los Angeles Opera presented as “The Stigmatized” on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This was the first staging of any Schreker opera in our hemisphere. It was also the most ambitious work, and the most persuasively presented, thus far in the company’s “Recovered Voices” series.

    • Sol L Siegel says:

      I saw that production and loved it, though I could have done without the angled stage. Bard College (under Botstein, of course) staged “Der Ferne Klange” a few months later and I was almost as impressed. I still don’t have much Schreker in my collection, but I do like listening to it.