Review: A fine Kreutzer Sonata from the Parker Quartet

The Parker Quartet (L – R): Jessica Bodner, Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao, and Kee-Hyun Kim. (Photo courtesy of Luke Ratray)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The recent very cold weather did not appear to adversely affect the turnout for the University of Chicago Presents debut of the Parker Quartet at Mandel Hall last Friday night. There was a good-sized crowd on hand to hear Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao (violins), Jessica Bodner (viola), and Kee-Hyun Kim (cello).

In 1908 composer Leos Janacek wrote a piano trio inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.” (This tragic novella was itself inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 which is known as the Kreutzer Sonata because it was dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a French violinist, conductor, and composer.) The piano trio was never published and is believed to have been destroyed. But again in 1923 the Czech composer returned to the ideas of Tolstoy’s story with his String Quartet No. 1, known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”

Janacek, born in 1854, was not remotely a young man at the time of its composition but he had a burst of youthful inspiration. A decade earlier the composer fell in love with a much younger woman. While Kamila Stösslová didn’t return his love, she became a friend, and Janacek found in her inspiration to write many of his late works, including the Kreutzer Sonata. He wrote to Kamila, “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.”

Janacek was deeply moved by Tolstoy’s story of a married woman having an affair while the lovers — she a pianist and he a violinist — are working on Beethoven’s sonata. The husband learns of his wife’s duplicity and stabs her.

Janacek’s string quartet is intense and passionate, full of interesting harmonic ideas and unusual flourishes.

The Parker Quartet took on the Kreutzer Sonata with gusto, opening with crisply turned out phrases and rapid expression of the embellishments. They immediately created a sense of tension, nervous excitement, and foreboding.

This quartet is full of interesting fragments and fragmentary themes, and the players had a striking ability to knit those all together in performance so that the big picture was revealed. The charged mood was well established.

The third movement was characterized by a spare, haunting sound regularly interrupted by Janacek’s insistent agitation, creating a sense of menace.

By the final movement, the music was blooming, with the uncertainty of Janacek’s unusual harmonies. The cries and sighs implicit in the score finally died down and the work ended by dying away. It was a fine performance.

Richard O’Neill on viola and Edward Arron on cello (both making their UCP debuts) joined the Parker Quartet for two sextets. First was the Sextet for Strings from Richard Strauss’s opera “Capriccio.” The opera asks the question, which is more important in an opera: the words or the music? The opera opens with this sextet, which is one character’s gift to another and gets the discourse moving.

The performers emphasized the elegance of the music. The pair of violins found the lyricism, the pair of violas offered gentleness and the pair of cellos contributed heft wrapped in velvet. It was a pleasing rendition, if perhaps a bit staid.

The concert concluded with the Sextet No. 2 in G Major by Brahms. The opening was hushed and slowly unfolded until the set of six players had created a very large sound. There was palpable romance from the violins and strong authority from the cellos. The second movement had a dancing lilt and sunny disposition. The Adagio featured vigorous play as well as diminutive sweetness.

The final movement began with impish energy that gave way to an enchanting melody. The propulsive nature of the music was clear and there was a long buildup of steam and some bracing passages before it came to a grand ending.

Coming up at University of Chicago Presents: In 1973, civil rights activist, musician, and scholar Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the all-female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, which now serves as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence at the University of Chicago. This Friday at 7:30 p.m. they perform in Mandel Hall hosted by University of Chicago Presents. They will perform their unique renditions of American gospel songs, African folk hymns, and freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement in a concert advertised as an intimate evening. For more information on this concert where the selections to be performed will be announced from the stage, visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.