The pianist Sviatoslav Richter thought the recording of Debussy’s La Mer by the relatively obscure conductor Roger Desormière absolutely the best he’d ever heard – and he listened to a lot of records! – and for Igor Stravinsky the conductor who exhibited the most consistently high standard of musicmaking in his experience was Alexander von Zemlinsky, a Viennese sad sack known to faithful readers of Mahler biographies as the recipient of a dreadful “dear Alex” letter from his composition student Alma Schindler who had transferred her crucial affections to the better-known composer/conductor Herr Mahler and would in fact marry him – “Be nice, Alex, we can mean so much to each other . . .” Aarghh!

Alex was furious, but he recovered, “this chinless, toothless, unwashed gnome” as Alma in her familiar daggers mode described him, and he had a long successful run as conductor at the German Theater in Prague, turning up at Berlin’s Kroll Opera in the late Twenties and it was at this time he made a small but potent batch of recordings with several Berlin orchestras. Even doubters suspecting, with some reason, a hyperbole habit on Stravinsky’s part, a tendency to conversational one-upmanship (generally with the prompting of his helper Robert Craft) will have to admit that almost without exception the “78” sides done by Zemlinsky in Berlin and lately transferred to CD are chock full of felicities.

Topping the little hit parade is Smetana’s Moldau (cousin to Wagner’s Rhine!), a thrumming, simmering Berlin Philharmonic performance with an ardent soupcon of tempo modification before the final climax, whereupon, on a veritable symphonic roll, Zemlinsky artfully sits on the tempo for Smetana’s final melodic binge. And surely the gentle toonerville whirl of his polka from Weinberger’s Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer qualifies this two minutes and sixteen seconds for some Pops of Fame. Stravinsky raved especially about a Zemlinsky-led Figaro in Prague and there are some good Mozart “bits” in his Berlin collection, a breezy and elegant overture to Don Giovanni, an overture to Così fan Tutte flavored keenly with pathos, an Entfuehrung curtain-raiser done with great delicacy and charm. A sly, well-nourished overture to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra shows Zemlinsky in a comfortable sub-Alpine mode.