United States Shostakovich/M. Zinman/A. Pushkarov, Britten, Weinberg: Gidon Kremer (violin), Kremerata Baltica, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 2.2.2014 (HS)
Shostakovich, M. Zinman, A. Pushkarov: Violin Sonata, Op. 134
Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Weinberg: Symphony No. 10
Weinberg: Concertino for Violin and Strings
When he turned 50, in 1997, Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer founded a string orchestra of young musicians from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia countries. Over the years, Kremerata Baltica has explored music of their own cultures and shown a remarkable affinity for all sorts of music. Their recordings of Piazzola’s tangos, for example, are exemplary.
At 76, Kremer may be performing more and more with his attention fixed on the score in front of him, but the music emerges with freedom and grace, always with a depth of understanding that few violinists can muster. Such was the case with the Shostakovich Violin Sonata, Op. 134, the ensemble providing a smoother and more homogenic counterpoint than the composer’s original, somewhat percussive version with piano. The performance lacked nothing in intensity and color, however. A percussion part by Andrei Pushkarov, added at Kremer’s request, delicately embroiders the orchestration, done by Michael Zinman in 2005, with an occasional wood block tick or bass drum thump.
Orchestrations of sonatas and other chamber works can radically change the effect of a piece. Think of Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, which becomes a veritable symphony. This one hews more strongly to the feeling and texture of the original, merely adding some warmth.
One might wonder what Britten has to do with Shostakovich (and Weinberg), but as I learned last year in Britten’s centennial celebrations, the English composer and the Russian giant communicated at length and admired each other’s work. Photographs exist of them spending time together with their respective significant others. Positioning Britten’s early Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge right after Shostakovich’s violin sonata underlined both composers’ penchant for unexpected harmonies and glancing dissonances, but with a resolutely tonal approach to melody.
The ensemble, performing without a conductor or soloist to lead them, savored Britten’s vivid contrasts from one variation to the next, handing off the leading parts seamlessly. The performance had intense expression.
The heart of the program, however, came in the second half, with two pieces by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The Polish-born Jewish composer did most of his work in the Soviet Union, suffering much of the same oppression as his mentor and idol, Dmitri Shostakovich. It’s easy to hear Shostakovich’s influence in this music, which is enjoying something of a renaissance, with stagings of his opera The Passenger and a complete set of recordings of his piano music in the works. Yet in Weinberg, there is something different.
The two works couldn’t have been more distinct. The Symphony No. 10, which opened the second half, grinds away in harsh dissonances and unyielding rhythms. Extensive, anguished cadenzas by Kremer, the solo cellist and violist relieve the repetitiveness. For me, these solos were the highlights of the 35-minute span. The symphony replaced the originally scheduled satirical Shostakovich work, Anti-Formalist Gallery. (The bass soloist, Alexei Mochalov, canceled because of the death of his wife.) Originally written for voices and arranged for this ensemble by Pushkanov, the piece (never performed publicly in the composer’s lifetime) takes sharp jabs at the apparatchiks who tormented Shostakovich and other composers. Replacing it with the Weinberg Symphony certainly darkened the mood.
Weinberg’s Concertino for Violin and String is as light-hearted as the symphony is dark. Kremer’s playing sang with sweet sincerity, lilting over dance rhythms. This utterly charming music, reminiscent of Shostakovich in nods to pop music of the time and classical precedents, unfolded with a smile and graceful balance.
The encore, more music from Weinberg’s pen, was an excerpt from “Bonifatsy’s Holidays,” (an animated film), which ended with a grin and poke in the ribs. Obviously this composer has more to offer than meets the eye.