In an unusually dramatic chamber music program, strong emotions fueled by dark thoughts crept into Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine on Thursday night.
The Portland Chamber Music Festival presented “The Kreutzer Connection,” the third of four programs in its 30th summer season.
Seeking to explore “the cross-cultural metamorphosis” of music, literature, and visual art, the Portland Chamber Music Festival surrounded dramatic readings from Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” with performances of the “Violin Sonata No.9” by Ludwig van Beethoven from 1802-1804, a seminal work dedicated to a violinist named Kreutzer, and Leoš Janáček’s “String Quartet no.1” from 1923, titled Kreutzer after the Tolstoy and, by extension, Beethoven works.
Above the performers hung a projected painting by René Xavier Prinet illustrating one interpretation of the novella’s action. The story is of the obsessive jealousy that takes control of a man who believes his wife is having an affair with a violinist with whom she plays the piano part in the Beethoven sonata. Controversial then and now, Tolstoy’s twisted literary masterpiece provides a trip through a feverish mind. It can still be difficult for a reader to endure all these years later, as can it be to hear the two related chamber works.
After a brief spoken introduction by narrator Walter van Dyk, Anthony Marwood (violin) and Andrew Armstrong (piano) took the stage to perform the Beethoven sonata. The pair captured the spirit of the piece which fascinatingly see-saws between a passionate sense of urgency and brief respites displaying lovely bits of reflective lyricism.
It became easy to understand Tolstoy’s employment of the work’s unsettling sense of being driven by barely controlled forces. Though the composer never lost control, the players for this performance were working near the edge.
After a reversion to something like classical form in the 2nd movement, the piece finished with complex lines that animated the players, their body language manifesting the intensity of the work.
BBC, PBS, and beyond actor van Dyk returned to launch into an extended reading from the haunting novella, adding only a touch of levity when he pulled a flask from the pocket of his smoking jacket and took a quick swig of its contents.
The unpleasant presence of the novella’s main character, who sought “moral perfection” while seeing love and animosity as inseparable in a marriage, was summoned with dramatic flair. Marwood came forward to silently evoke a character in the story while stagehands quietly set up the seats and music stands for a string quartet to enter and musically punctuate the close of the reading.
The quartet of Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Kristin Lee (violins), Melissa Reardon (viola) and Raman Ramakrishnan (cello) artfully employed modern techniques (shivery flourishes, impressionist harmonies) to add more complexity of understanding than would have been available to those lost in the fitful darkness of the 19th century. A women’s perspective was notably suggested by Janáček.
It was a slightly spooky but intellectually rich evening at the Portland Chamber Music Festival.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.