Arneis Quartet, with David Kravitz
May 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
My father recited Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” at our wedding, so when I heard that baritone David Kravitz was to perform Samuel Barber’s setting of it with the Arneis Quartet on Sunday, I had to go.
The occasion was a preview of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’’s fund-raiser the same day, and a classical music christening of the Park-Danforth’s acoustically fine performance space.
Kravitz is an internationally acclaimed baritone, and the Arneis Quartet a noted interpreter of contemporary music. Barber’s “Dover Beach” was written in 1931, when the composer was just 21. and while it does not have the scope of his famous Adagio for Strings, it is still a powerful work.
Rather chromatic, it sets the stage for the poem, with picturesque images of desolate waves and water, and the sea breeze rustling the curtains like that of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Not until the climax, which I have quoted above, does it interpret the feeling of the verse directly.
Strangely enough, it ends on what sounds to be a tonic chord on the word “night,” as if love were a sufficient compensation for the world’s desolation.
The interpretation was virtually flawless, technically and emotionally, and the subject matter all too appropriate for today’s world.
It was followed by Leos Janáček’s unusual String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer” Sonata) which has been called an opera without words.
As described by the strings, it could also have been a graphic novel, inspired by Tolstoy’s story of the same name, in which music proves to be a seductive force, leading to illicit love, jealousy and death.
Tolstoy, in his peasant garb, astride a horse like a fifth generation aristocrat, was something of a phony, and to my mind, jealous of the power of music (He loved John Field, inventor of the Nocturne, but said to Rachmaninoff, who had just played at a soiree in St..Petersburg: “Very nice, but what good is it?”).
Janáček turns the novel on its head and makes it an argument for women’s liberation .The ways in which his music portrays action and dramatic scenes is uncanny: loving harmony, strident arguments, train nosies, passion, horseback riding and murder, to name a few. The quartet realized them perfectly.
If there were program notes relating each scene to measures in the score, no one would need supertitles to know what was going on. For the initiated, the composer even quotes the Beethoven sonata in the third movement.
Thanks to the Park-Danforth and the Portland Chamber Music Festival for scheduling this event for residents, and for allowing free admission to the public.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.