Friday, 20 November 2009

Music Matters - Kreutzer Sonata, Gate Theatre, Notting Hill

The Kreutzer Sonata - adaptated by Nancy Harris from Tolstoy's novella - has a man, Posdneyshev (Hilton McRae), talking to us on a train about his relationship with his wife. He is a complex figure - part Ancient Mariner to the audience's wedding guest, who, we learn, was tossed on a sea of jealous fantasies about his beautiful wife's suspected, but unconfirmed, affair with a dashing violinist.

Posdneyshev is both a radical and a misogynist, who attempts to lure us with his man-to-man frankness on the condition of women (this being late 19th century Russia, he's no proto-feminist). A man in the audience laughed during last night's performance at the description of the wife as smelling like a peach so overripe she had the stench of a whore. Which is proof positive how some people have ended up in the 21st Century without stopping in the 20th at all. Posdneyshev's jealousy is Othello-like in his blind belief in the truth of the affair. He can inspire himself to murder without even needing an Iago.

The apparent affair between the piano-playing wife and fiddler is presented behind a lighted scrim, where the wife and her 'lover' perform snippets of the great Beethoven violin sonata, dramatising Posdneyshev's monologue. They supply a suitable accompaniment, as the sonata's first movement is all crescendi and rasping double-stops, perfect for his descent into murderous rage. It's gut wrenching stuff and powerfully dramatic.

The scrim reminded me how the original Kreutzer Sonata, the concerto-like piece in A major for piano and violin from 1803 by Beethoven, has become as layered with meanings and associations as a sunken ship. Premiered by George Bridgetower, the mixed race, 'mulatto' violinist, Beethoven's original dedication to him was revoked in a fit of anger after Bridgetower insulted a woman not knowing she was the great composer's friend. Perhaps this subtext of rivalry between a composer and a musician inspired Tolstoy's story. The sonata's name comes from Rodolphe Kreutzer, a famous French violinist at the time, who was awarded the dedication instead, although he never performed the piece and thought it unplayable.

Another nail in the coffin of art's chances of ever outflanking fact.

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