1803: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9 (aka The Kreutzer Sonata) premieres.
1889: Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata is published, taking inspiration from Beethoven’s work.
1923: Leoš Janáček writes String Quartet No.1 (aka Kreutzer Sonata), taking inspiration from Tolstoy’s work.
2010: Laura Wade’s play Kreutzer vs Kreutzer premieres, taking inspiration from the work of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Janáček.
It’s the perfect example of how artists and creatives inspire one another across the barriers of time and language, and how the work of one genius can provoke the best in others (although it seems only people whose names begin with the letter L). Laura Wade’s Kreutzer vs Kreutzer – billed as “a play for voices” – is the perfect last lap in an artistic relay race that’s been running for over 200 years. She manages to throw the individual works which serve as her inspiration into sharp focus, while also knitting them together into one cohesive and immensely rewarding whole.
Tolstoy’s novella is told from the perspective of murderer Pozdnyshev, who killed his wife because he believed she was having an affair with a violinist. Pozdnyshev is a relentlessly jealous husband who forbade his wife to spend any amount of private or unattended time with other men, but this proves difficult when your wife is a pianist and she needs to perform Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a male violinist. Pozdnyshev believes his wife and the violinist had an affair, and so stabs his wife to death.
Enter Wade to bring some perspective to the drama. Pozdnyshev believes it was Beethoven’s music which changed his wife’s internal state of mind, as the composition is “too powerful to be played in polite society”. So Act 1 of Kreutzer vs Kreutzer sees Samuel West take the role of the violinist and Jemima Rooper the wife, and as they play Beethoven’s music (actually played by professional musicians from London’s Aurora Orchestra), we see them fall in lust with one another, and they consummate the affair. Ultimately, they are caught out by her husband, and he kills her. That was Tolstoy’s take on the truth.
Act 2 sees the same dramatic situation set up – violinist and pianist – but this time an alternative to Tolstoy’s “truth” is shown, with the wife rebuffing the violinist’s flirtatious approaches and the two remaining resolutely apart. This time the music they play is Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata, but what results is that the violinist falls head over heels in love with the woman he cannot have, and despite nothing ever happening between them, the two are caught together in the same room by her husband, who believes an affair has been going on, and kills her. Same outcome, but a vastly different truth.
Wade has put a mirror to Tolstoy’s story and shown that what the author wants the reader to believe may not always necessarily be the truth of a situation, as in life. Pozdnyshev’s wife may or may not have had an affair with the violinist, but either way, she ends up dead at the hands of a dangerously jealous man.
So what influences each side of this coin? The music! In Act 1, when the musicians end up in bed together, they have played Beethoven’s emotionally varied suite of music, performed in three movements – the furious Adagio sostenuto – Presto, the contemplative, calmer Andante con variazioni, and the joyful, exuberant Presto. Structurally, it reflects the dialogue in the actors’ two-hander, where they meet, he flirts outrageously, she flirts back, they rehearse their concert, and then they sleep together.
Act 2’s music changes the vibe. The dialogue starts out almost exactly the same, but the tipping point is the moment where the violinist asks the pianist to tell him to stop flirting with her if that is what she wants. In Act 1, she does not tell him to stop, and sordid activity follows. But here, the devout pianist, fearful of her husband’s jealousy, asks for the flirting to cease, and instead of a sexual liaison, there follows an unrequited love. Again, the structure of the music informs the narrative. Janáček’s music is discordant and unpredictable in parts, in others smooth and graceful, but often intercut with sudden, stabbing frenzies. It makes for great horror film music reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s iconic Psycho score, and reflects the inner torment of both characters. There’s both sadness and madness in Janáček’s music, perfect for representing unrequited devotion.
It all sounds very involved and earnest, but at the heart of this piece is some beautifully performed music, which can be heard movement by movement, interspersed with the actors’ narrative. Thomas Gould works his violin with energy and vigour, a graceful grasshopper at one with his instrument. He is accompanied by the remarkable Ana-Maria Vera on piano, and the two gel together beautifully in their rendition of Beethoven’s sonata.
But it is the Czech composer’s fractious, dissonant yet melodic music which really makes Wade’s piece sing. The music is unusual, and perhaps not as familiar to some as Beethoven’s work, and proves that the German, the Russian and the Czech were perfect collaborators across the decades. Wade is the expert interpreter and conductor of something that has taken centuries to hatch.
Rooper and West give nuanced performances. They are reserved, stately and mannered during Act 1, but more familiar, chatty and animated in Act 2, again reflecting the music they are “playing”. West has plenty of charisma and truth for his part, while Rooper is the perfect replacement for Katherine Parkinson, who had to pull out of the play’s mini-tour due to unforeseen circumstances. Rooper is one of the UK’s classiest young actors, and she brings the requisite poise and playfulness to her part.
Directed sparingly by Theatr Clwyd’s artistic director Tamara Harvey, Kreutzer vs Kreutzer is a joy for classical music fans, but gives so much more than pitch-perfect recitals by also weaving the works of three masters into one astonishing play about perspective, truth and sexual jealousy.