Vienna is a city that laughs and cries at the same time, as the string ensemble A Far Cry demonstrated Sunday afternoon in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new Calderwood Hall. Ranging from the 17th century (Johann Heinrich Schmelzer) to the 20th (Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg), with a stop in between for Mozart, the program plumbed emotional depths but never lost its sparkle.
A sense of play was evident throughout. Schmelzer’s “Die Fechtschule’’ - one of some 150 ballets he composed for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I - incorporates a fencing match into its penultimate movement. Prior to that, the robust, full-bodied Far Cry strings had served up a nimble Sarabanda and a poignant Courente, and the “Fechtschule’’ itself was full of parry and thrust, before the waltz-like minuet of the concluding Bader Aria, in which the participants get patched up.
Mozart’s light-hearted Piano Concerto No. 13 was performed in a version for keyboard and strings, without the full complement of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and timpani. The Austrian-born soloist, Markus Schirmer, played with care and a forthright tone, but his strong left hand created a metronomic beat, and he hammered away at the first-movement cadenza as if it were late Beethoven. The hall itself may have been partly responsible for the hard-edged acoustic; neither piano nor strings had much nuance. For his encore, Schirmer paid tribute to a fellow native of Graz by racing through Schubert’s “Grazer Galopp.’’
The two 20th-century pieces - three movements from Berg’s “Lyric Suite’’ string quartet that the composer arranged for string orchestra, and Schoenberg’s Suite for String Orchestra - hinted at what another famous Viennese composer, Gustav Mahler, might have gone on to write, particularly the Mahler of the unfinished Tenth Symphony. The “Lyric Suite’’ plays with the musical initials of Berg and his mistress, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (Alma Mahler’s sister-in-law), and the three orchestrated movements - Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso, and Adagio appassionato - convey anguish and restless yearning. A Far Cry gave passionate voice to all this; in the Allegro misterioso, you could practically hear the lovers tiptoeing about.
The Schoenberg plays with the idea of the Baroque dance suite, but despite its conventional tonality and the double-dotted Overture, it sounded more modern than the 12-tone Berg piece. The Minuet became a kind of a sour ländler; the final Gigue was Vienna in a funhouse mirror. A Far Cry most certainly had fun with it.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.