The Zürcher Kammerorchester (ZKO), which celebrates its 70th anniversary next year, offers a stunning and varied programme of music ranging from the Baroque to contemporary genres. Its recent concert in the Zurich’s Kunsthaus was particularly riveting: it was staged to coincide with a thought-provoking juxtaposition of works by the secessionist Austrian painter Egon Schiele with those by the contemporary British painter of grossly fleshy figures, Jenny Saville. Within the museum’s contemporary exhibition space, and as part of the education programme around the show, the 16-strong chamber group staged a fine recital of short works, first by Arnold Schoenberg, then by his composition pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. The three composers represented the Second Viennese School which, in the first and second decades of the 20th century, lay the foundation of what we know as the classical modern, and ultimately fostered the convention of atonality that Arnold Schoenberg was to herald.

Zurich Chamber Orchestra with Sir Roger Norrington © Tom Entzeroth
Zurich Chamber Orchestra with Sir Roger Norrington
© Tom Entzeroth

Schoenberg’s Ten Early Waltzes (1897) started out with a bang. Concertmaster Willi Zimmermann immediately set the tone for its lyrical expression, imparting unmistakable cues through direct eye contact and elegant body language. While the tenor of each of the waltzes markedly varies, the work is quintessentially Viennese; Romantic beginnings of thick sound textures alternate with healthy, robust rhythms and melodies. Throughout, the musicians showed their own affection for what is, an infinitely “likeable” work. This was music each knew well, and the ten waltzes showed a kind of precision, integrity and continuity – even across stylistic variations – that was compelling. Some of the waltzes were more melodic than others, some more demonstrative; some had repetitive forms that were almost as predictable as a Beatles’ song. But in every case, the players were in complete command of the repertoire, making Vienna at the turn of the century so present that we in the audience could almost see ourselves skating on the Danube.

The concertmaster followed up the piece with a chapter of useful musical history. Schoenberg taught his students the tried-and-tested practices and genres of a traditional musical education, but enjoyed the encouragement of composer Alexander von Zemlinsky − also his brother-in-law − and the great Richard Strauss, both of whom leveraged considerable influence in Vienna’s musical landscape at the time. The Kunsthaus’s art educator, Madeleine Witzig, also embellished the concert with background, giving the audience more detail about the Austrian capital city at the time: it was a kind of “happy Apocalypse,” she said, that brought forth artistic and intellectual wealth such as the city had not known in such concentration before. This was the breakthrough Vienna after the War that fostered the author Robert Musil and playwright Athur Schnitzler, years in which Sigmund Freud was to publish his “Interpretation of Dreams”, that marked the end of the monarchy and the emergence of new political entities.

Schiele, of course, could be aligned to this genre. His courageous and self-confident images, his portraits depict the bold, the disturbed and the shameless − often reflecting the inherent edginess of human sexuality − were all hallmarks of an era that was coming newly into itself. And if he foreshadows Jenny Saville, it is because her work, too, is both provocative and a call to action: a search for new methods of artistic expression and validation of both the inner psyche and the outer “stuffs” of human flesh.

Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz was a thick fabric of Romantic sound that began with a pulse in the lower registers. Its beginning had passages that prefigured the emotive power of Elgar’s Sospiri, albeit the Webern work had much more in the way of “furious” bow work. Since the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel had made select Webern scores available for study, the concertmaster could describe the original notation: it looked, he said, like something scribbled by the tiny hand of a child. But as small as the notation on the page, the work’s resonance was long-lasting.

Excerpts played from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite marked the end of the concert. Like Schoenberg, Berg was a self-taught composer, and this work is particularly fascinating since it is filled with coded allusions to certain people who figured in the composer’s life. With its many motifs that lend themselves to dance, the piece sounds quintessentially Viennese. But of the concert selections, this was the most complex of the three and the only one that introduced more atonal harmonies. Those were the same that the other of Schoenberg’s disciples − composers like Ernst Krenek and Luciano Berio − would also take to a next level in twelve-tone composition.

Further, at the very end of the Lyric Suite, a final single note vibrates on a tone that is fragile and tenuous. This may allude to the personal pain Berg experienced over his unrequited love, but it also clearly points to a new historical era, even if one that would culminate in the horrors of another great war. As such, the Berg chamber work might be said to foreshadow expression and undercurrents that, while once evidencing an era of intellectual freedom and flourish, were soon to be condemned by National Socialism as “degenerate art”.

From my perspective at the side of the hall, the musicians were all positioned in front of 45, a major work by the German painter, Georg Baselitz. It is a suite of 20 large-format portraits of a single red-headed woman, each one of them on painted, scratched and deeply gouged wood. That the portraits are hung upside down adds a disturbed psychological component to the visual vocabulary. Just as in the heartbreaking violin solo at the end of Berg’s second movement, a ”fragile entity” is made of the repeated female sitter. It is hardly surprising that Baselitz suite alludes to the losses – or the loss of sanity – suffered by thousands in WWII. No background in the gallery could have been more fitting.