Beethoven and Bridgetower, a performance of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, directed by Richard Tognetti, featuring Janáček’s String Quartet No.1, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A major, Op.47, ‘Bridgetower’ [traditionally also known as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’], with a script by Anna Goldsworthy and Rita Dove (with reference to Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ and other texts), spoken by members of the orchestra and the narrator, Angela Nica Sullen, stage directed by Eamon Flack. City Recital Hall, Sydney, Friday 26 March 2021.
The preceding paragraph is more than a mouthful, which might indicate something of the rich allusiveness of this recent concert. I wish I could just copy the program notes in here wholesale — they are both scholarly and fascinating. Instead, here is a breathless summary:
- In 1803 George Bridgetower was a young black violinist wowing the Viennese crowds with his amazing playing when he met Ludwig van Beethoven, then aged 33. Beethoven was so impressed by Bridgewater that he composed a sonata for him.
- They performed together at a smash hit concert, Bridgewater improvising brilliantly while sight-reading the score that Beethoven had barely finished when they went on stage.
- Their friendship ended soon after in a passionate argument. Beethoven rededicated the sonata to the famous violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer doesn’t like it and never plays it, but it is his name that goes down in history in association with the work, while Bridgetower’s name fades into obscurity.
- In 1889, Leo Tolstoy writes his novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ about sex and murder in which Beethoven’s sonata is centrally important. The narrator is overwhelmed with jealousy when he watches his wife perform Beethoven’s sonata with a violinist. He murders her and reflects that only sexual abstinence would save man from his animalistic passions. Music, passion, love and death — the novella is a nasty piece of work and a controversial success, a dangerous influence on romantic young men of the time, and destined to become contested ground in arguments about Tolstoy’s sexual politics.
- Beethoven’s sonata, already an extraordinary explosion of passion and creativity, becomes suffused with the tensions and violence of Tolstoy’s story — at least among those who know both works.
- In 1923, Leoš Janáček reaffirms the positivity of Beethoven’s sonata and rejects Tolstoy’s misogyny and sexual repression in his own Kreutzer Sonata. Janáček’s sympathies are with the wife who is murdered. He himself has a lifelong obsession with a woman to whom he writes hundreds of passionate letters. Music, passion, love and life — written in a flood of inspiration over eight days, Janáček’s sonata recolours Beethoven’s and overlays it with new references to Russian life and art.
- In its performance, the ACO invites us to reconsider the history of art, especially the way scholarship has whitened the history of classical music. At the same time it celebrates the layering of interpretation and the pearly development of lustre and depth that each creative performance achieves by referencing the old and making it new.
The ACO has undeniable sex appeal — the sex appeal of intelligence passionately deployed, of sensitive fingers and minds making music. The themes of Beethoven and Bridgetower are ideal for this group: sex, race, power and passion.
In this concert, Angela Nica Sullen narrated with a commanding stage presence, but I think the limited dramatisation was more well-intended than fully effective. I like the idea of poetry and rhetoric with my music, but I felt a cognitive clashing of the gears as the performance moved from one mode to the other. While the music was brilliantly composed and dashingly executed, the words were, by comparison, less engrossing. However, full marks to the ACO for stretching genre boundaries and making explicit some of the politics embodied in culture.
The members of the ACO are rockstars of classical music. Lead violinist Richard Tognetti performs like a boy galloping away on his imaginary steed. Around him, the other musicians, all breathtakingly talented, seem almost restrained — but they are all spellbinding to watch. In their hands, musical tradition runs deep and resonant but the immediacy and excitement on stage is electrifying.
© 2021 Craig Bingham
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