The Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky didn’t attach a programmatic description to his String Quartet No. 2 (1915), but biographers have suggested that the work reflected tragic events in his life and the lives of those close to him. He was devastated when his student Alma Schindler rejected him and married Mahler in 1902. Several years later, the painter Richard Gerstl committed suicide after an affair with Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, who was married to Schoenberg.
The remarkable young Escher String Quartet gave a bristling performance of the work on Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Pierre Lapointe, the group’s violist, writes that the first time he heard Zemlinsky’s quartet, he was “scared by its craziness.” This densely chromatic, symphonic and potently expressive piece seems to evoke the personal traumas of Zemlinsky’s inner circle, with an anguished polyphony of vehement discourse tempered with gentler, bittersweet interludes.
The ensemble offered a passionate rendition, conveying the full spectrum of grief and turbulence in this 40-minute work of Wagnerian proportions. Each member of the group — Adam Barnett-Hart, first violinist; Wu Jie, second violinist; Andrew Janss, cellist; and Mr. Lapointe — played with a glowing tone and insightful musicianship, resulting in a characterful whole.
Many of Zemlinsky’s colleagues, including Schoenberg, deemed his sensual, late-romantic music too conservative. The program also included the Five Movements for String Quartet (1909) by Webern, a student of Schoenberg who helped persuade Mathilde to return to her husband.
Webern’s stark, spare piece, with its atonal language, is an important early work in the modernist movement, a dramatic contrast to the luxuriant scores that Zemlinsky, Strauss and Mahler composed around the same time.
The program was framed with refined interpretations of two works by Schubert, opening with the Quartettsatz in C minor (D. 703) and concluding with the String Quartet in G (D. 887). The ensemble’s full-blooded rendition of the last quartet was particularly impressive, with the first violin, cello and viola melodies played with sumptuous elegance.