The name of Alexander von Zemlinsky is not a familiar one to most American music-lovers. When it comes up at all, it is usually in the form of footnote or part of the background of some better-known composer.
Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was the only teacher acknowledged by his great contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, whose first wife was Zemlinsky's teacher. In 1914, Schoenberg declared Zemlinsky was "the best conductor alive." Thirty five years later, near the end of his own life, he restated his belief that Zemlinsky was a great composer.
Another pupil of Zemlinsky's was the young Alma Maria Schindler. Zemlinsky was not only her teacher but her suitor as well, until she met and married Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky, like Schoenberg, was among the first to regard Mahler as an important composer. He became Mahler's friend, was appointed by him to conduct at the Vienna Opera and was an outstanding conductor of Mahler's music. (Rafael Kubelik once remarked on a performance of the Mahler Fourth in Prague during which Zemlinsky, "an ugly little hump-backed crow of a man, was transformed while conducting into one of the most beautiful of beings.")
After holding a number of important conducting posts in Vienna, Berlin and Prague, Zemlinsky came to this country as a refugee from Hilter in 1938. He died in obscurity in Larchmont, N.Y., at 70, remembered by a few as a conductor, by a few more as a pedagogue and by hardly anyone as a composer. His status remained as it had been described in 1920 by Alban Berg, who quoted from Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony in his own Lyric Suite: "one of the masters hidden from the public."
It is only now that interest in Zemlinsky's music is being awakened. The New York Philharmonic performed his Lyric Symphony (a work sometimes compared with Mahler's Lied von der Erde, with lines by Tagore assigned to a soprano and baritone) under James Levine last fall, and more recently (Feb. 1), here in Washington, the La Salle Quartet performed the last of his four string quartets at the Library of Congress. At about the same time, Deutsche Grammophon released what appears to be the first recording of a major work of Zemlinsky's, the Second String Quartet, also played by the La Salle Quartet (2530.982).
This work, composed sometime between 1910 and 1914 (the dates are uncertain -- Schoenberg acknowledged the dedication of the score in January 1915), is in one long movement, a bit under 40 minutes in this performance. It is divided into six subsections which combine or contrast, as in most single-movement sonata works of such proportions, to correspond more or less to the outlines of a more conventional, multi-movement format. From its content it is easy enough to understand the affinity of Zemlinsky, Mahler and Schoenberg for each other's music, for it is in the rich late-romantic vein represented by such early works of Schoenberg as Transfigured Night, the tone poem Pelleas and Melisande and the first two quartets; Mahler's style is echoed, too, particularly in the sections corresponding to a scherzo and slow movement.
By the time Zemlinsky published this work, in 1916, Mahler had been dead five years and Schoenberg had embarked on a new style in his own compositions. The Quartet was not performed until 1624 -- coincidentally the same year in which portions of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony were performed for the first time (the premiere was given by the Rose Quartet, whose leader, Arnold Rose, had married Mahler's sister Justine 22 years earlier) -- and probably had not been given as many as a dozen subsequent performances until it was taken up by the La Salle. Even now, it is not too likely to enter the "standard" repertory, but it is a work eminently worth hearing and easy to enjoy. The performance could hardly be better, and neither could the recording itself; should the La Salle get round to recording the rest of Zemlinsky's quartets, there should be a receptive public for them, if not a huge one.
What every recording quartet seems to get around to, sooner or later, is a Beethoven cycle. RCA has just released the Cleveland Quartet's recording of the six Op. 18 quartets in a three-disc set (ARL3-3486). The performances are somewhat less striking than the Cleveland's recent set of the middle-period Beethovens (ARL4-3010) and a bit less elegant than the Smetana Quartet's digital remakes of the Op. 18 works for Denon (OX-7077, 7015, 7138-ND), but highly competitive and deeply satisfying by any standards.