Edo de Waart, Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, chose for his contribution to the 2011 Arts Festival works by two Germanic composers spanning the late Romantic and early modern periods who were almost exact contemporaries. Richard Strauss coincidentally was born seven years before and died seven years after Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Although drawn from similar musical traditions, the works by the two composers differ in form and style. To begin with, those by Strauss are scored for a homogeneous section of the orchestra, while the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony is scored for full orchestra and voices.

The two works by Strauss more or less bookend his long career. He wrote the Serenade for 13 wind instruments in E flat major when he was in his teens, and it is said to be the first of his works to have survived in the concert hall. The other, Metamorphosen, he finished in the final months of the Second World War, a few years before he died in 1949, and probably the last major work in his career except the Four Last Songs.

The Serenade for 13 wind instruments in E flat major is a dainty composition full of youthful energy and gentle enthusiasm. It opens with a bashful tune on oboes, blossoming like flowers in spring into the full wind ensemble. At times de Waart seems to have difficulty controlling the mischievous wind players, who all want to go in different directions. Flashes of anxiety do appear, but are quickly overcome by the horns which provide a reassuring anchor.

In sharp contrast, Metamorphosen, scored for 23 solo strings, opens with a melancholic, gently weeping theme on cellos and double basses, repeated on violins and violas, that grows into sombre wailing. De Waart extracts a smooth, mellow, controlled and refined tone from the players, perhaps not tragic enough, but nevertheless emotionally charged. The sombre wailing gives way to anguished outpouring, culminating in the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony. The work finishes by returning to the restrained melancholy with which it begins, as if Strauss was signalling his resignation from a long career.

I find it irresistible to draw parallels between Zemlinsky and Antonio Salieri. Both were tutors to famous composers – Salieri to Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt, and Zemlinsky to Arnold Schoenberg; and we might remember them better if more talented contemporaries who lived much shorter lives had not overshadowed them – Mozart for Salieri, and Mahler for Zemlinsky.

In fact, Zemlinsky might have been more respected in his time than Salieri, with Brahms recommending one of his works for publication, and Mahler conducting the premiere of his opera Es War einmal. In Why Mahler, Norman Lebrecht tells the story about Mahler’s encounter with Eric Korngold, who wanted to be a composer. Mahler is said to have told Korngold’s father: “take him to Zemlinsky…he will learn all he needs.”

Comparison of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is fully justifiable, as the composer himself did so in a letter to his publisher. They both draw from Eastern sources – Das Lied from Chinese poems and the Lyric Symphony from the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European Nobel Laureate for literature; and both are scored for solo voices and orchestra.

Divided into seven movements, the Lyric Symphony opens with a forceful and passionate but pithy theme that quiets down into the first song, sung by baritone Stephan Genz, standing in for Konrad Jont, who withdraws at the last minute owing to illness. Although for very brief moments he struggles to overcome the powerful orchestral accompaniment, his voice is versatile and he tackles his part with gusto. He is somewhat faltering in the first song, but quickly regains self-confidence. Swedish soprano Marlin Hartelius has a fine but not overly rich voice, which has a tinge of darkness about it. She excels in the second movement, a scherzo to which she applies the litheness of her voice to highlight the numbing distraction of desire.

At its worst, the symphony is like thick snow in the winter – you sink into it and won’t get hurt, but soon feel the cold and find it hard to extract yourself. The orchestration in parts of the work is described as “dense” in the programme notes, to the point of being onerous, I would add. Nevertheless, the orchestra under Edo de Waart tries its best. In the bright spots of elegance and lyricism, as in the opening of the fourth and final movements, it excels by being nimble and light.

Zemlinsky is no Mahler, whose breadth of vision, stamina and depth of emotion are hard to emulate. His Lyric Symphony nevertheless has enough sparks of excellence to merit a detour from the standard classical and romantic repertoire. Kudos goes to Edo de Waart for thoughtful programming, and pulling it off with aplomb.