Love and war were the stated themes of Friday evening's performance by the Boston Chamber Music Society in Jordan Hall. War came first and last, via Debussy and George Crumb. Love came in the middle with Brahms's "Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer."
That is, unless you count love of country in the category of wartime sentiment, in which case the program starts to feel more integrated. To be sure, the intense waves of patriotism unleashed by the outbreak of the First World War famously swept up artists and intellectuals just as they did the man on the street. Each gave what he could. The violinist Fritz Kreisler claimed to use his sharp hearing to pinpoint the location of enemy artillery. Sigmund Freud pledged all of his libido to Austro-Hungary.
For his part, Debussy, among other things, wrote "En Blanc et Noir" for two pianos, the work which opened Friday's program in a very fine, supple performance by Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson .
The composer's wartime writing and public pronouncements often conveyed a bellicose and unsavory cultural nationalism, but this work was a more complex response to the times. Written in 1915, after the gruesome realities of trench warfare had begun taking their toll on the French national mood, "En Blanc et Noir" is far from the kind of heroic piece one could imagine being piped into the trenches. As Lee and Hodgkinson vividly demonstrated, its movements capture in stark and often highly dissonant terms the numbing rhythmic activity of life on the front lines and the confused chaos of battle, suggesting a deeper tension between Debussy's unabashed political sympathies and his more sophisticated intuitions as an artist.
After the Debussy, Friday's program took safe refuge in the 19th century and in the warm Romanticism of Brahms. The "Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer" shed light on the more quotidian conflicts of the heart through settings of Georg Friedrich Daumer poems brilliantly accompanied by two pianos. Lee and Hodgkinson returned, and the four able singers were soprano Amanda Forsythe, mezzo Eudora Brown, tenor William Hite , and baritone David Kravitz .
Their individual contributions were solid, but the ensemble numbers made the strongest impression, especially the sumptuous closing setting, which showcased all four singers in a well-blended, handsomely shaped performance.
George Crumb's iconic "Black Angels," a withering piece written as a response to the Vietnam War, closed the program. It is a theological parable laden with symbols, but on a more basic level, it is a dark, Conradian journey into the heart of aggression and modern warfare.
Crumb chooses a string quartet as his vehicle, equipping it with both extended techniques and extra instruments: heavy amplification, glass harmonicas, bowed gongs, and thimbles to tap maniacally on strings.
Friday night's performance was uncommonly good. Harumi Rhodes and Judith Eissenberg (violins), Marcus Thompson (viola) , and Rhonda Rider (cello) rightly treated the work as a theater piece as much as a musical one, performing with searing intensity on a darkened stage.
That the assembled Brahms-loving audience responded as well as it did suggests that some challenging contemporary music, when played with this level of conviction, can speak more widely than is commonly assumed.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.