The Aspect Foundation for Music & Arts launched its latest concert season with a gripping performance by the Zemlinsky Quartet. Music scholar Nicholas Chong put the performances in context with enlightening (and entertaining) introductions to works by Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček and the quartet’s namesake composer, the less-well-known Alexander Zemlinksy.
Unfamiliar with the Zemlinksy’s music, I found his String Quartet No. 1 a welcome revelation. But the musicians’ onstage bonhomie and vivid engagement with the audience, along with their tremendous skill, made the whole concert a joy.
The selections spotlighted the development of European concert music through its transition from the late Romantic movement to 20th-century modernism. Brahms championed Zemlinsky’s early work, and there is romantic majesty in the Quartet No. 1’s third movement. But the first movement launches the opus with a playful sense of joy, tinged with a few eccentricities inclining toward the modern.
The musicians lit the music up with a nimble passion that they sustained throughout the concert. They made the most of the contrast between the second movement’s whimsical introduction and its intense minor-key scherzo; the movement became a busy and revealing journey of textures and tempos.
When the viola shines through, as it did in the rich thick sound of the third movement, it’s a pretty good bet you’re hearing a finely balanced ensemble. Aiding as well were the excellent acoustics of the concert hall at the Bohemian National Hall, a fit setting for a program devoted to music by composers associated with what is today the Czech Republic.
Unlike Dvořák, the most famous Czech composer of all, and Janáček, the celebrated opera composer and fanatical Czech nationalist, Zemlinsky was Austrian. The Zemlinsky Quartet adopted his name in honor of the 16 years the composer spent in Prague conducting at the Deutsches Landestheater (now the Prague State Opera).
The four musicians of the Zemlinsky first linked up 24 years ago in Prague when they were young teenagers, which helps explain their uncanny tightness, as well as their affinity for this music. But the Czech connection wasn’t the program’s only theme. The idea of unrequited love connects the pieces more intimately.
Some time after composing the mostly upbeat String Quartet No. 1, Zemlinsky had a brief, ill-fated affair with his student Alma Schindler (the future Alma Mahler), who remained on his mind for many years to come.
Dvořák, though contentedly married, continued to pine for his wife’s sister Josefina, who had refused his advances when she was his young piano student. Inspired by the girl, he wrote 18 songs called Cypresses, and later arranged them for string quartet. The Zemlinsky performed six of these, brilliantly capturing the range of emotion Dvořák put into them: joyful and lighthearted but with dramatic gestures and rubatos in the first, somber and watery in the third, tender longing in the fourth. The final selection epitomized the collection’s wide range with a lyrical melody over a frantic accompaniment.
After intermission the musicians proved themselves masters of the modern with Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters.” An unrequited passion for a young housewife resulted in this forceful and inventive work of the composer’s maturity, composed shortly before his death in 1928. Its episodic turns in mode and rhythm highlighted the musicians’ outstanding synchrony; they played as if reading one another’s minds.
The second movement stood out especially, mixing a contemplative nod back toward Romanticism with passages of modernistic strangeness. In the third, lilting melodies mingled with insistent tone clusters and delicate dissonances, the musicians navigating surprising rhythmic shifts in perfect alignment. The finale was a dark carnival of complicated passions.
An exuberant homemade arrangement of “Dance of the Comedians” from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride served as an encore. The quartet’s vigorous showmanship, vast technical skill, and good spirits shone through.
The highlighted composers may have been driven by frustrated passions. But their music made for a completely fulfilling evening of music.
The Zemlinsky’s North American tour continues with concerts in Canada through 29 October.
The Aspect Foundation‘s series of “Music in Context” concerts continues with a Beethoven program on 1 November at the Italian Academy of Columbia University. These wonderfully entertaining and informative events are a great boon to the city’s culture. If you’re going to be in NYC in the coming months, make a point to see one.