Prom 5: 24th July 2001

Moz-Art a la Haydn
Tchaikovsky/Alexander Raskatov
The Seasons’ Digest (UK Premiere)
Liszt/Sergei Dreznin
Fantasia quasi Concerto ’After Reading Dante’ (UK Premiere)
String Quintet in C, D956

Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra
Gidon Kremer (violin/director)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Kremerata can be relied upon for discipline and artistry; Kremer himself for the unstinting commitment and daredevil virtuosity he brings to the vast repertoire he plays.

The Schnittke began in a darkened auditorium, string players making separate entrances idly improvising (an inverse of Haydn’s ’Farewell’ Symphony) before Moz-Art begins in earnest, another of Schnittke’s historical ’takes’, paranoia and schizophrenia just around the corner. It’s not until near the close of this two-violin (Kremer and Eva Bindere) and strings piece that a memorable refrain catches the ear; then the opening bars of Mozart 40 steal in and the players leave – the obverse of Haydn 45. This return to Schnittke, even a short work, after the three-day exposure the BBC gave him in January, proved too soon.

This first half of contemporary updates of older music continued with Raskatov’s hi-jacking of Tchaikovsky, whose twelve miniatures, one for each month, are quite happy on the piano as The Seasons – and remain so. Using strings, percussion and ’prepared’ piano, Raskatov, for ten-percent of his ’arrangement’ has found some pretty colours; for the other ninety, it proves a pointless exercise. We had the passing of a small bell between violinists – one blew a bugle – and a couple of double bassists hit each other’s instruments. Tchaikovsky’s original melodies are quite nicely arranged for strings – sensitively played too – which offered some solace – but the use of John Cage’s piano was an irritating off-key tack-on. Make no mistake, the musical part of Seasons’ Digest is by Tchaikovsky. When Raskatov writes about ’parallel commentary’, hoping he has added a ’contemporary association row’, he might be perceived as being naïve, pretentious, or something between the two.

There were no tricks with Dreznin. He’s gone to Liszt’s ’Dante’ Sonata (the last movement from the Italian year of ’Annees de Pelerinage’) to create a concerto for Kremer. The harmonic shape of the original is preserved but strings are a lightweight replacement for the ’orchestral’ power of the piano. Dreznin has though created a reasonably convincing nineteenth-century pastiche; a melodramatic concerto based on legend. Liszt, with Mendelssohn looking-on, has invited Paganini to write the solo part. Sorted! Fun for Kremer, but little to return to for the listener.

Playing Schubert’s Quintet on multiple strings raised some pre-performance doubts, the biggest one being the potential loss of intimacy. Some chamber music can be successfully augmented – Mahler’s of Schubert’s ’Death and the Maiden’, and Beethoven’s ’late’ quartets (Opp.127, 131 and 135 in particular) have been made ’public’, even if ’more is less’ remains one’s overriding reaction.

Kremerata, seated with antiphonal violins, violas centre-stage, and cellos either side of them (Schubert’s ’fifth’ member is a second cellist), with two double basses, produced a magical performance. Schubert’s original solo lines were either as intended or enhanced by the additional personnel. The space of the RAH added a halo of angelic reverberation, which retained the music’s confidences. The performance itself was ideally paced and phrased, the balance between confident striding and reflecting on mortality and the after-life (this is one of Schubert’s final works) beautifully judged, the famous slow movement both flowing and serene. With myriad colours and inflections, this rendition captured the imagination and held the attention.

Some textual conundrums were neatly solved. The non-observance of the first movement repeat was a good idea; a smart bit of editing, presumably by Kremer, removed the superfluous lead-back dominant 7th chord that is printed as part of the exposition. A decision on whether to play the scherzo’s coda twice (believed by some commentators not to have been Schubert’s intention, hence the need to start the repeat of the scherzo’s second section before then) was made simple by not repeating it: de-formalising and concentrating Schubert’s structures is part of the interpretative process. Come the work’s ultimate chord, be it accent or diminuendo (Schubert’s notation is ambiguous), Kremer opted for the former and long-held.

This nourished, luminously-sounded, adroitly-executed Schubert will be a strong candidate for any Proms 2001 ’Top 10’. Encores by Pelecis (tango-influenced) and Rota (something jazzy) wrapped things up.

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