The two opening works of the Portland Chamber Music Festival on Thursday night at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland, could not have been in starker contrast.

The first, the Boccherini Quintet in D Major, G.448, with noted guitarist David Leisner, was light and lively, ending in a rousing fandango.

The second was the dark and somber “Des Todes Tod” (“The Death of Death”) Op. 23 by Paul Hindemith. 

Yet both composers were devoted to writing high-quality music that could be performed by amateurs.

Boccherini was arguably the most popular composer of his time, and when the guitar became fashionable, he wrote new and rearranged music for it. The “Fandango” Quintet is the best known of these works, and was given a charming performance by Leisner and a string quartet composed of festival performers. 

The guitar is a member of the ensemble rather than a soloist, but the fandango wouldn’t work without its characteristic rhythm and sound. In it, cellist Michael Kannen doubled on tambourine and castanets.

Hindemith’s three-song cycle, “”Des Todes Tod,” is the dark side of German Expressionism personified. The three songs, settings of poems by Eduard Reinacher, are “Tale of Death,” “God’s Death” and “The Death of Death.”

Edgar Allen Poe would have loved them, and the music the composer employs to enhance their eerie effect.

Every once in a while, cheerfulness tries to break in, as in the images of swimming in “the golden stream of joy” in the second section, but Hindemith will have none of it. His water music is descriptive, but joyous it is not.

The work was expressively rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with as many black and white contrasts — and shades of gray — as a (German Expressionist) Kirchner etching. The accompaniment — collaboration is a better word — was perfectly provided by an unusual combination of two violas and two cellos, played respectively by Daniel Palmer, Lawrence Neuman, Brant Taylor and Kannen. Their low, rich voices set off Arnold’s clear and powerful soprano.

The program concluded with a fine performance of Dvorak’s String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op 97 (“American”) which, lovely as it is, has had some of the freshness rubbed off in the course of countless performances.

Still, one always hears new things, like the tremolo wind in the poplars in the third movement, or the appearance of “Frere Jacques” in the finale.

Dvorak was certainly not a musicologist, but he knew a pentatonic scale when he heard one and managed to capture the essence of a strange country in a more innocent time. The work requires a prominent cello voice to be effective, and Natasha Brofsky provided it flawlessly. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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