The “Mahler Unleashed” festival at New England Conservatory continued Tuesday, November 15, in Jordan Hall with the NEC Contemporary Ensemble performing “The Aura of Mahler (a consort of miniatures).” The program sought to answer the question formulated by John Heiss in the program note: “After Mahler, what can happen?” The selected music included one student piece by Mahler, but otherwise the chronology spanned 1909, two years before Mahler’s death, to 2011, with a concentration on Second Viennese School composers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. The thematic continuity came from the commingling of Sehnsucht (longing) and Weltschmerz (world-pain) in a series of concise compositions.
Alban Berg’s Four Pieces, Op. 5 for clarinet and piano (1913) is melancholic with moments of mania. Memorably, John Diodati on clarinet and Bretton Brown on piano brought out the expressive quality of the opening Mäßig, with a melody spanning unusual intervals and the swinging line of the second pieice, Sehr langsam. Diodati demonstrated an enviable control of the clarinet across all registers and dynamic ranges; Brown brought depth and sensitivity to the piano. Together, these two musicians engaged in an admirable collaboration, precisely attuned to the music and to one another.
Emileigh Brooke Vandiver, cello, and Christopher Lim, piano, presented Anton Webern’s Three Short Pieces, Op. 11 (1909), a pared-down exploration of the cello’s sonic possibilities; while melody and harmony are compact, interpretation was not. Vandiver packed a world of emotional meaning in each gesture on the cello, and Lim brought the requisite vigor and lyricism to the piano.
A quartet of the conservatory’s faculty performed Gustav Mahler’s Adagio for piano quartet (1876) continuing directly into the Piano Quartet (1989) by Alfred Schnittke. Lucy Chapman, violin, Dimitri Murrat, viola, Paul Katz, cello, and Gloria Chien, piano, brought deft touch and quicksilver change of character to this protean music. The Adagio is the surviving movement of a quartet, possibly a quintet, written by Mahler while a student at the Vienna Conservatory; twenty-four measures of the following Scherzo survive, and Schnittke incorporated that fragment into his Piano Quartet. The music is Mahler and Schnittke, and this work of two very different composers could become “Mahler or Schnittke” in less capable hands. Happily that was not the case in this concert. The lush romanticism of Mahler carried into the Schnittke, and Mahler’s antecendents to the compressed, cluster-chord expressions of Schnittke were brought out in the opening Adagio. The Adagio was gorgeous, and aptly justified a program centered on Sehnsucht and Weltschmerz, while the Quartet ranged from lyrical to forceful with Schnittke at swim in a sea of Mahler. The whole was hauntingly numinous.
Following intermission came a set of three works played without pause: Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Short Piano Pieces, Op. 19 (1911); John Heiss’s Four Short Piano Pieces (1961); & Katherine Balch’s Four Studies for Solo Piano (2011). Heiss and Balch composed their works under the spell of the Schoenberg, each at the interval of fifty years from the original; this set, then, was a rare opportunity to trace the impact of one composition over time in a single concert. Also, as Heiss noted in the program and in his introductory remarks before this set, Schoenberg — according to testimony of the composer’s brother-in-law, Rudolf Kolisch, a former NEC faculty member — completed his Op. 19, specifically the ultimate piece, as he walked home from Mahler’s funeral, with church bells in the distance tolling Mahler’s death. This set was the core of the program. Schoenberg’s Pieces are a study in concision, and Christopher Lim performed them admirably, emphasizing their characteristic introspection and angst interspersed with dark humor. Lim also performed Heiss’s Pieces, which add the element of jazz and a barely discernible American idiom to the brachyology of Schoenberg. Katherine Balch performed her own Studies, which update Schoenberg with ever-so-slightly expansive harmonies and fragments of concerto-like virtuosic performance post-dating Prokofiev.
Following this piano cycle, Emily Deans, viola, performed György Kurtág’s Jelek (Signs), Op. 5 (1961). In five movements, this work is a study in truncated expressions and forceful rhythms; it includes intimations of folk-fiddling and also ascordatura that the performer accomplishes while continuing to play. Deans brought sensitivity and variety to this work, alluding to the larger musical structures which these Signs suggest.
To conclude, the Futura String Quartet took the stage for Anton Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909). This work finds Webern in a more expansive mood than the Three Short Pieces, Op. 11 earlier on this concert (and dating from the same year), and it charts Webern’s early explorations in free atonality. Here, there is a clearer debt to Mahler, especially noticeable in the second movement, Sehr langsam. The third movement, Sehr bewegt, calls for dancing on the precipice. The final movement, In zarter Bewegung, fades away into nothingness. Futura brought out all this with precision and verve.
This concert presented passionate and emotionally rich performances of a series of impacted miniature compositions. The triumvirate of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern – originally teacher and students, later, friends – formed a hermetic compositional community. Listeners must work to gain access and understanding, and this consort of miniatures contained several weighty works. With origins in Mahler’s music, these composers made of music the equivalent of Symbolist lyric poetry and its crystalline swans: fixed, sonorous, puzzling, and opaque, yet clear. The intense passion of Paul Celan’s “zwischen Immer und Nie” (Between always and never) from his poem, Nachts, wenn das Pendel der Liebe schwingt (At night, if the pendulum of the love swings) could serve as epigraph for this concert. The work of active listening this required last night was amply rewarded by the intense performances delivered by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.