The Austrian Connection: Avanti String Quartet plays Zemlinsky and Schubert

The Avantis from left Tamsen Beseke, Matthew Witmer, Michael Masters and Jacqueline Suzuki.


The name of composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), when it’s remembered – if it’s remembered at all – is usually as a footnote in the biographies of more famous musicians: as a close friend of Brahms in the elder composer’s final years, as teacher and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, as teacher – and lover – of Alma Schindler before she met her future husband Gustav Mahler. Yet Zemlinsky’s proximity to these great musicians was also a measure of the high regard they held him in. Brahms was an enthusiastic advocate of Zemlinsky’s work, compelling his publisher Simrock to take up Zemlinsky’s cause. Mahler, who later became his friend, produced his operas at the Vienna Court Opera and conducted his symphonic works. In pre-World War II Central Europe, Zemlinsky was a well known figure, commanding respect as a composer, conductor and teacher.

But as with many European musicians of that era, the rise of Nazi Germany disrupted Zemlinsky’s career. Fleeing Germany, he spent a brief spell in Austria be fore he moved to the United States in 1938. Unknown, neglected and grappling with a foreign tongue, America spelled the end of Zemlinsky’s career. Penniless and his spirit broken, he died of pneumonia in Larchmont, N.Y. in 1942.

Zemlinsky, however, has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s. His operas once again have been staged, often to critical acclaim, as evinced by Los Angeles Opera’s recent production of Der Zwerg. His compositions, shot through
with Mendelssohnian grace and clarity of expression, are possessed of an inner modesty free of the grandiosity (and pomposity) that characterize the work of many of his better known contemporaries.

A perfect example is the composer’s “String Quartet No.1,” which was played by the Avanti String Quartet at Glendale’s First Baptist Church on Wednesday in the Glendale Noon Concerts series. A sunny work from the composer’s youth, its four movements are each marked by a limpid, alt Wienerisch melos buoyed by a keen lyric sensibility and immaculate sense of proportion.

The Avanti String Quartet, comprising of Tamsen Beseke (1st violin), Jacqueline Suzuki (2nd violin), Matthew Witmer (viola) and Michael Masters (cello), navigated Zemlinsky’s quartet with total ease and fluidity. Their unity of ensemble, supported by a lean and agile tone, unraveled without pretense the glowing heart of this music.

In the quartet’s rhythmically tricky scherzo, the Avantis were superb, bringing out the charm of the teasing motives of the scherzo’s outer sections, then turn on a dime and rip through its agitated trio. Zemlinsky, though a supporter of contemporary musicians and musical movements, remained at heart tied to the 19th Century; to the sunset glow of late romanticism. It was this Zemlinsky that the Avantis revealed: a composer whose roots lay in Schubert’s lyricism and the bittersweet street ditties and waltzes of Vienna.

The Schubert connection was reinforced by way of the program’s opening work: Schubert’s unfinished “Quartettsatz.” Where Zemlinsky seemed to look back longingly on the 19th Century, Schubert’s fragment – from the composer’s 23rd year – looks forward to the expressionism of the 20th Century.     Running throughout the work is a nervous, febrile figure in 16th notes, tearing through the brief moments of light and respite that infrequently arrive. Here, too, were the Avantis ideal, supplying playing of warm lyricism and aristocratic tone.

But what most lingered in the memory – and rightfully so – was the Zemlinsky. In the hands of the Avantis, it was easy to see why Zemlinsky’s work had captivated Brahms’ attention. But the composer, never a self promoter or an egomaniac, struggled to find the same lasting legacy that was conferred on his peers.

“It’s not enough to have elbows,” he once ruefully wrote to Alma Schindler. “You have to know how to use them, too.”

With friends like the Avanti String Quartet as his elbows, Zemlinsky’s foothold in musical history promises to grow ever stronger.