Passacaglia [European premiere]
String Quartet in E flat, Op.127 [arr. Victor Kissine]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. posthTchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence, Op.70
Gidon Kremer (violin)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 16 October, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Kremerata Baltica was formed by Gidon Kremer and offers opportunities to young Baltic musicians. Kremer is noted for his performances of contemporary and off-the-beaten-track music. Given this commitment, it came as no surprise that the concert opened with music by Arvo Pärt.
Passacaglia opens with single staccato notes from the violin soloist against a pulsating background, the single note moves to double and as the work develops there are two more animated cadenza-like passages and a lot of tense, nervy colouring from the orchestra. The vibraphone didn’t seem to ad lib much more than a couple of brief decorative passages – perhaps he was tired? Like most of Pärt’s music, this is colourful, but would, perhaps, have been better heard as the soundtrack to a 1970s’ horror movie.
Of the Beethoven little can be said. Given that Beethoven’s ‘late’ quartets are amongst the greatest music ever written, I can see no earthly reason why anyone should bother to arrange them for a string orchestra. The performance itself was never more than efficiently smooth.
Mendelssohn’s D minor Concerto is one of those justifiably neglected works, which wasn’t helped by this performance. Kremer has a small, fairly sweet tone, and eschews anything so old-fashioned and self-indulgent as portamento and vibrato – everything is clean and exact.
Tchaikovsky wrote Souvenir de Florence in 1890 and is another neglected work, but this one is a masterpiece. It was written for string sextet, but the string orchestra version works beautifully. The combination of dance, pseudo-folk music, glorious melody, rhythmic variation and even fugal elements is stunning, and one can only wonder why more chamber orchestras don’t programme the work.
Throughout the evening the two groups of violins had been grouped together, but here they were antiphonal, which suited the conversational and fugal aspects of the work. Things didn’t start well, though. The opening pages were rather listless, but after the quasi-development section of the first movement, the performance suddenly came to life and the codetta pulsated with life. In the long slow movement, leader Sandis Steinberg’s opening ‘song’ was compromised by some flutter in his tone and the massed string playing could have been more passionate, but the sound was superb. Marta Sudraba launched the second part of the movement with a beautifully melancholic rendition of the first subject, replete with vibrato and portamento. The duet with the first violin was exquisite, but Steinberg couldn’t quite match his partner in terms of intense soul searching – this was a slightly one-sided conversation.
Tchaikovsky was very fond of writing unconventional replacements for the scherzo and the Allegretto moderato is no different. Here it was played slowly and seemed to echo and compliment the slow movement with its sombre rhythmic impulse. To call the finale a tour-de-force would be an understatement. Folk elements are combined with fugue and the composer does a Beethoven in the coda, which goes gloriously on and on. In an ideal world there would have been more swing and attack and less polish. But this was still great, hugely committed playing.
Kremer and the vibraphon-player were brought back for the single encore, Piazzolla varying a popular theme, which sounded like Lennon & McCartney’s “Yesterday”!