Alma Mahler is known mostly for her marriages and liaisons with 20th-Century movers and shakers. Her name and story even became popular in the '60s through an irreverent song by political satirist Tom Lehrer. Lehrer's career survived that decade and so did his song about Alma's femme-fatale attraction.
She also wrote music, however, and the question remained whether an important talent was smothered by the imperious demand of husband, Gustav, that she abandon her composing and dedicate herself to his.
On the evidence of four songs by Alma sung Saturday on a program by the Southwest Chamber Music Society at the Huntington Library in San Marino, the answer is, apparently not. Her music, dating from 1915, is rooted tonally in meandering late German romanticism. It seems more declamatory than melodic, and sounds transitional, reaching for a style that did not emerge until Schoenberg codified his theories.
Still, probably a stronger case could be made for it than that by Kathleen Roland and Susan Svrcek. Roland sang with a dark, dryish soprano that tended to tighten at both extremes and was more effective at loud than soft dynamic levels. She did not illuminate the unfamiliar texts. Svrcek's accompaniment remained discreet.
The two also collaborated in a cautious account of Wagner's "Wesendonk" songs where steadiness and wholeness of line took precedent over interpretation of the texts.
The program opened with a sweet-and-sour performance of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by the Southwest String Quartet--violinists Peter Marsh and Susan Jensen, violist Jan Karlin and cellist Leighton Fong. Marsh played with telling, personal expressivity but also with prominent pitch problems.
Violist Diedra Lawrence and cellist Richard Naill joined the quartet to close the program with a vivid, tight, impassioned and apparently error-free account of Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht."