Even for the religious skeptic, there is something uncannily real about the paintings of the 15th-century mannerist artist Domenikos Theotokópoulous, remembered as El Greco. His portraits of the life of Christ bear a seismic grit and sorrow. Some, like Christ Cleansing the Temple, reflect as much contemporary as storied biblical tension. El Greco lived and worked in Spain during the height of the Counter-Reformation. And so there’s a beguiling assurance about his religious paintings—testaments of stalwart faith in a world that seemed to him to be spinning out of control.
These images so captivated composer George Tsontakis that he aimed to depict them in music. But Book 1 of Portraits of El Greco are no mere impressions of paint and canvas. Rather, they relay a palpable emotional gravity, even Messiaenic mystery. That was the sense conveyed by the Boston Chamber Music Society, who performed Tsontakis’s work as part of a rich and varied program last Sunday at Jordan Hall.
Completed in 2014 and premiered by BCMS that year, Portraits by El Greco explores energy and subtlety through the sparsest of textures and gestures. “Toledo,” El Greco’s portrait of his home city, unfolds through little more than oscillating clarinet intervals and silvery string glissandos. The piano conveys an unsettled distance through chiming chords. Yet in Sunday’s reading there was a hint of warmth, as if recalling a happy memory of home.
Other movements, however, delve into even deeper emotions. In “Pietà,” harmonies flicker against the sweet sorrows suggested by solo cello and violin. “Christ Carrying the Cross,” by contrast, pits blocks of dissonance against each other, the music shrieking, jolting forward, and ultimately erupting in a cry.
Faint pings from the piano suggest the eerie anxieties of “Entombment.” Yet these effects eventually coalesce in a prayerful yearning. Everything softens in the concluding “Annunciation,” which sounds both gratifying and otherworldly. The BCMS musicians painted the images contained in Tsontakis’s score with bright colors and sensitive flourish.
They did the same with Frank Bridge’s Piano Quintet in D Minor. With its wildly shifting moods, and circuitous journey from introspection to outward exuberance, this little-heard gem from 1912 strikes a stellar example of British Romanticism. Sunday’s reading delivered bold contrast. The first movement fluctuated between Baxian earthiness and Brahmsian sweep. Max Levinson’s rolling piano figures underscored plaintive lines in the strings. Warm melodies tipped the music towards the light before everything tumbled into a chromatic abyss.
The second movement also offered a robust play between tenderness and fire. The opening theme glowed with dusky ambiance; the central Scherzo churned with demonic furor. Grand gestures generated a sense of wayward resolution in the finale, and everything culminated in a bold peroration.
If the Bridge offered a vivid portrait of angst and seismic urgency, then Gabriel Faure’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 120 painted its images in soft colors.
Isabelle Ai Durrenberger’s violin, with its touch of grain, complemented Raman Ramakrishnan’s silvery cello. With pianist Levinson, they made the first movement the very picture of grace and whimsy. Greater momentum in the Andantino outlined every melodic shape and contour, the lines always singing fervently. The Allegro vivo frolicked and lilted with sensitive elan.
Grażyna Bacewicz’s Oboe Sonata made for a witty answer. It’s a pleasure to hear oboist Peggy Pearson on any occasion. On Sunday, she and Levinson realized all the music’s levity and brusque charm. They traded lines in the opening movement with wild vigor. The ensuing waltz tittered, bounded, and even galumphed where appropriate. And the swift figures of the finale delivered as much zest as delicacy. The performance suited this auspicious afternoon—the music clear, emotionally satisfying, and, above all, picture perfect.