When a program built around Mahler’s alarming Sixth Symphony, known as the “Tragic,” is titled “Premonition,” it’s probably time to start worrying.
Jacaranda, the Santa Monica new-music series, didn’t have any specific warnings attached to its two-part concert Sunday afternoon and evening at First Presbyterian Church, but anyone practiced in the art of anxiety hardly needed to be told. Mahler’s angst-soaked Sixth, in a two-piano version, was preceded by later string quartets from the perturbed world the symphony anticipated.
Gustav Mahler completed his symphony in the summer of 1904. His second daughter had just been born. Two years earlier he had married one of the most desirable woman in Vienna. As music director of the Vienna State Opera, he was widely recognized as the most important musician in the most important musical city. He wasn’t then appreciated as the greatest symphonist, but he knew he was.
And yet, he was full of dread. During what should have been a joyous season, he also finished the song cycle “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), understandably freaking out his wife, Alma. He locked himself away in his countryside composing hut with nothing but foreboding. A frustrated Alma sought out lovers, old and new. Two years later his elder daughter would die, and he would learn of his own fatal heart ailment. His conversion to Catholicism hadn’t muted the virulent anti-Semitic attacks from his enemies.
It’s all there in the Sixth. Mahler knew exactly what was at stake. The onrush of alarm is made all the more palpable by some of the most wondrous evocations of bucolic landscape in all of the symphonic literature, as well as some of the most sublime love music.
But first the string quartets, which were fabulously played by the Lyris Quartet. The earliest was Czech composer Pavel Haas’ “From the Monkey Mountains,” written in 1925. It is an enthusiastic score by a 26-year-old composer conjuring up a popular Moravian holiday spot. It begins in the style of Janácek, Haas’ mentor, and from there attempts to move music into the future. The last movement, titled “Wild Night,” includes a part for snare drum to add what might have passed for nightclub revelry.
This is music of a young composer still finding his voice. The dread we hear in this score is what we know in retrospect. While Haas had shown great promise over the next decade, he never had the opportunity to write much of lasting interest. The Jewish composer perished in Auschwitz.
The String Quartet No. 2 by Georg Friedrich Haas was written when he was exactly the same age, 45, as Pavel Haas was when he died. That is the only connection. The later Haas is a contemporary Austrian avant-gardist of no relation who explores the physical properties of sound. Nine years ago, his Third Quartet caused a sensation in Pasadena when it was performed in pitch-black darkness. The earlier Second, written in 1998, is compelling for its exploration of overtones. It is all unearthly harmony, with the cello sometimes calling arresting halt.
Reading dark connotations or earthly light into the music is a listener’s prerogative. In his characteristically long, historically and socially informative program notes, Jacaranda’s mastermind, Patrick Scott, finds possible premonition here in Haas proudly coming out a couple of years ago as a member of the BDSM community. Is that what now makes the quartet’s crystalline tones seem like they came from another world?
In the final and most recent quartet, Jörg Widmann’s “Hunt Quartet,” a next-generation German composer, now 45, makes its intentions more clearly known. The quartet, from 2003, begins with a quote from the Schumann piano piece “Papillons.” What follows is a little something for everyone in this premonition circuit. Schumann gets jazzed up and beaten up (whip claps included). Mahlerian foreboding is ever present. The players scream as if in pain and shout as if in anger. It ends in violence, the cowering cellist attacked by three screaming players brandishing their bows in the air like sticks. The Lyris made this downright unnerving.
For Mahler’s Sixth, a two-hand arrangement by Alexander Zemlinsky was spiced up with a percussion part that allowed for driving snare drums, rustic cowbells and a pair of hammer blows on a bass drum. Pianists Inna Faliks and Daniel Schlosberg read through their 75-minute performance capably. Eduardo Meneses was the percussionist.
But much is lost in the translation. Zemlinsky’s arrangement is utilitarian, with little pianistic interest. When it comes to performance of a massive symphonic work like this meant for a large orchestra and full of incredible expressive detail, two cooks can spoil the pot through compromise rather than a singular vision. But mainly what was lost was Mahler’s sheer sonic palette.
Mahler did approve of this transcription, which was made before the symphony’s premiere in 1905 as a useful way to preview the score. But my guess is that in this case he had no premonition that it would go any further than that. For what it’s worth, that year he was 45.