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 If his list of works were not in such a terrible mess—many are unpublished; several, including the present work, were until recently thought to be lost—Die Seejungfrau would count as his Op. 30 or thereabouts.
Agricola was praised by his contemporaries for the bizarre turn of his inspiration, and his music likened to quicksilver. By the standards of the period this is a highly unusual turn of phrase, but remains spot-on. The Ferrara Ensemble anthology, the first ever devoted to the composer, focused on the secular music, both instrumental and vocal, precisely the area covered by Michael Posch and Ensemble Unicorn in this most satisfying disc. Where there's duplication (surprisingly little, in fact) the performances compare with those of the Ferrara Ensemble, although the style of singing is very different. The voices are more up front and less inflected, perhaps the better to match the high instruments with which they're sometimes doubled. But the tensile quality of Agricola's lines comes through none the less, as does the miraculous inventiveness and charm of his music. Further, much of what's new to the catalogue really is indispensible, for example Agricola's most famous song, Allez, regretz. Unicorn keeps its improvisations and excursions to a minimum, and the music is the better for it. It really is a must-have.