We hope it was nothing other than lousy weather that prevented Jordan Hall from filling up on October 19 for the NEC Chamber Orchestra’s performance “Hearing Mahler Through His Contemporaries.” This event, part of NEC’s yearlong “Mahler Unleashed” commemoration of the centenary of Mahler’s death, took the unusual approach of illustrating him in negative space, so to speak, by playing works written during Mahler’s lifetime—mostly contemporaneously with his mature work—to put his own approach in the context of the music he might have been hearing. As it happens, the program didn’t actually contain any music by Mahler’s contemporaries; those would be people like Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and Ludwig Thuille, not to mention un-Germanic folks like Debussy, Puccini, Delius, Glazunov, Sibelius and Nielsen. The music on this evening was by Mahler’s teacher Robert Fuchs and several from the following generation: Franz Schreker, Josef Suk and Anton Webern. This quibble aside, the result was a rich and satisfying exposition of mostly unfamiliar repertoire.
For starters, there were two short pieces by Schreker (1878-1934), who, in the early 20th century, was considered Strauss’s rival as the greatest living German-language opera composer. NECCO performed the Intermezzo, op. 8, from 1900 and the unpublished Scherzo of about the same time, both of which were early works, probably written as competition pieces (the Intermezzo was a winner, quite justifiably), and which, perhaps, were tailored to the generally conservative tastes of the Viennese public and academia, most notably Fuchs, who was on the award jury. Nevertheless, both pieces are well made and highly agreeable. The former is gentle and pastoral in feeling, with some chromatic twists in the inner voices; the latter, in duple meter, has some rustic and nature-loving allusions not unlike those of Mahler’s First Symphony, but of course with a high Viennese polish applied. The conductorless strings (the entire program was strings-only) of NECCO, with Jennifer Wey as leader for these pieces, were unimpeachable in balance, tone, intonation, expression and synchronicity.
Fuchs (1847-1927) was teacher to the stars, one might say, of fin du siècle central Europe: Mahler, Wolf, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Sibelius, Enescu, and Korngold among them. His own music, greatly sought after by the public but scarcely promoted by him, earned consistent praise from that toughest of tough graders, Johannes Brahms. He wrote five serenades, earning him the nickname “the serenading fox,” of which NECCO performed Serenade No. 2 in C major, from 1876 (the same year, incidentally, as Brahms’s First Symphony). In four movements that grew progressively more involved and deep, it was a winning exercise in faux-naïveté. The slow movement is especially affecting, as shadows fall on the scene; the Scherzo, if such it is, is unusually vehement in a minor key, while the finale is a frenzied Galop, sort of a Schubert Great C Major Lite. The performance, led this time by Robyn Bollinger, was virtuosic; we commend the limpidity of line and the lightness of touch, even in the most furious passages.
After intermission came another serenade, this time by the true outlier on the program. Josef Suk (1874-1935, not to be confused with his grandson the famous violinist) did not study with Fuchs, but with his (Suk’s) future father-in-law, Antonín Dvorák, from whom he derived his earliest musical influences. We presume that Suk’s Serenade for String Orchestra in E-flat, op. 6, was included as a nod to Mahler’s birth in Bohemia, although there was never any Czech flavor to Mahler’s writing. Suk’s maturer work would develop a decidedly more chromatic and Mahlerian tone; this Serenade, though, written at Dvorák’s instigation in 1892, was well worth hearing. While certain of its sounds correspond to what one thinks of as an Eastern European vernacular, there were some individual and distinctive touches. We noticed a much thicker string texture in this work than in either the Fuchs or, for that matter, the Schreker. At the same time, alone among the works on this program, the Suk provided opportunities for soloists to emerge from the ensemble. While all the solo work was beautifully played (by the leader, Quan Yuan, the principal second violin, Grace Park, and the violist Derek Mosloff—one small cavil about better projection aside), we must single out the cellist, Caleb van der Swaagh for his stunning solo in the glorious slow movement. This Serenade does have a commercial recording extant, but it deserves to be more widely heard. A violinist friend remarked that its use of E-flat as the tonic enables a dark, rich sound unavailable with the brighter open strings in the more usual string keys of D, G and A. This was definitely the case in the Presto finale, which added emotional depth uncharacteristic of this type of work to the sonic depth inherent in the key relationships.
Although it would normally be considered sub-optimal programming to follow such a rousing work as the Suk with a slow closer, there were no objections in this case to the Langsamer Satz (slow movement) by Anton von Webern (as he still called himself in 1905). Written for string quartet as a student exercise for his teacher, the ardent Mahlerophile Arnold Schoenberg, and played here in a very effective string orchestra version by the eminent conductor Gerard Schwarz, this is about as un-Webernish a piece as one is likely to hear from him. It was, however, by far the most Mahlerish (and, dare we say, malerisch) work on the program. It features an almost unthinkable (for Webern) long-breathed melody—whose opening motif, alas, we couldn’t avoid hearing as “If You Go In” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe (somehow we doubt any influence of Sullivan on Webern). Since this is Webern, though, a listener can’t help trying to detect adumbrations of the composer’s mature style. They were there, including a preoccupation with delicate pizzicati and other individualistic points of articulation, though almost entirely in the background. The climax, too, begins with a big unison and intensifies with octave displacements in the melody—but, after all, this is just as characteristic of Mahler; think of the Tenth Symphony. As they were throughout the concert, the NECCO players (the leader for the Webern was Kobi Malkin) were impeccable and utterly professional in sound and musicianship. Their coach, Donald Palma, received a proper share of the copious applause.
Every generation of students going through our leading music schools, it would seem, surpasses its predecessor in chops and finesse. With even major orchestras wobbling and falling left and right, one is left to wonder where all this talent and training is going to find outlets worthy of its pedigree.