‘Once Upon a Time,” the Bohemian-themed program with which local string ensemble A Far Cry opened its 2013-2014 season Saturday at Jordan Hall, was no fairy tale. The first work on the bill was composed by Gideon Klein, who had passed through the concentration camps of Terezín and Auschwitz before he died in Fürstengrube, a forced-labor camp. The program then turned the clock back to a serenade written by the 18-year-old Josef Suk at the end of the 19th century. It concluded with the earliest work of the three, Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, No. 38. Mozart was of course not a native Bohemian, but when his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” took Prague by storm in 1786, he became a favorite son. The symphony had its premiere in Prague in 1787 and thereafter took its nickname from the city.
Klein, who was born in Moravia in 1919, completed his String Trio in 1944, a couple of weeks before he was moved to Auschwitz; he gave it to his girlfriend for safekeeping, but it didn’t turn up again until 1990. A Far Cry performed it in a version arranged by Vojtech Saudek for chamber orchestra called Partita for Strings. This is a dark work — hardly surprising — where not slipping into atonality is a struggle, an act of faith. Its aggressive opening Allegro pits urban industrial pounding against stamping folk rhythms; after five minutes, the battle abruptly ends. The Lento is an elegy, a lament, a protest, consoling in the rocking of one of its middle variations; the closing Molto vivace is a frenetic dance with the devil that somehow works its way into a major-key conclusion. I had never heard the piece; A Far Cry gave it the weight of an important composition hovering somewhere between Mahler and Shostakovich.
Suk’s Serenade for Strings I have heard, but I never thought there was much of his teacher, Antonín Dvorák, in it, or much of anything else. A Far Cry made me think otherwise. The opening three phrases — two questions and an answer of sorts — were sweet but strong. The second-movement Allegro ma non troppo e grazioso — fancy name for a salon waltz — was almost cheeky, with teasing pauses whose phrasing did credit to this conductorless ensemble. The Adagio, the heart of the Serenade, came off as a celestial lullaby, at times suggesting bluesy Bruckner. The concluding Allegro giocoso justified its marking by being playful; the chorale had religious weight, and then, with the theme from the first movement returning, there was dancing at the end.
For the “Prague,” A Far Cry brought in guest strings, winds, brass, and timpani for a complement of 30. First and second violins were deployed antiphonally (in the first half of the program, they’d been grouped); everyone except the cellos stood (as was the case in the first half), and that seemed to give the performance added energy. It was certainly the most enjoyable rendition of a Mozart symphony I can remember. The approach was intense but not driven, with rich strings and characterful winds and brass. Second subjects relaxed even when they didn’t slow down. The fugal strands in the first-movement development were transparent, and you could detect the anticipations of Mozart operas like “Don Giovanni” (which premiered later in 1787 in Prague) and “The Magic Flute.” The Andante was dreamy and tender; the nasty beginning of the Presto finale presented no problems. The only glitch was the program book’s intimation of a nonexistent fourth movement, which had the audience hesitating before it burst into applause.