Gidon Kremer returns to Schumann transcriptions in a wide-ranging Vancouver concert

12/02/2020

CanadaCanada Moussa, Schumann, Bruckner: Gidon Kremer (violin), Michael Abramovich (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 1.2.2020. (GN)

Gidon Kremer (violin), Otto Tausk (conductor) and the VSO © Matthew Baird

MoussaOrpheus

Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (violin transcription by composer/Drahaim)

Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E-flat Major ‘Romantic’

There was quite a bit of excitement over the arrival of exalted Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer for this VSO concert. Kremer has always championed Schumann, especially his Violin Concerto, yet this time he played a violin transcription of the composer’s Cello Concerto, with orchestration sanctioned by the composer. Though few might advocate this version in preference to its original cello incarnation, Kremer has played it for a long time and made a recording for Deutsche Grammophon in 1994. His reading is special both in the way he penetrates Schumann’s emotional world and in the distinctive character he brings to the shaping of phrases, giving them additional plasticity and length. Up-and-coming Canadian composer/conductor Samy Moussa, just named Composer-in-Residence for the Toronto Symphony, also contributed his own beguiling concertante work, Orpheus. Otto Tausk rounded out the programme with a (sometimes) powerful performance of Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony, but one that did not show mastery of the composer’s stop-go style, nor find much of the work’s lyrical contemplation or sense of mystery.

My immediate reaction to Gidon Kremer’s treatment of the Schumann was that the work seemed more intimate on the violin than the cello. There was certainly nothing ostentatious about the violinist’s playing, which often sought intellectual rather than overtly expressive solutions. The opening moved out patiently, and Kremer’s fine articulation and sense of coherence were distinctive. I was impressed with how the violinist could quickly transform a tight-knit passage into one that was more rounded. There were moments of ardour, but those of a musing countenance may have stood out as much. The only significant problem was that the orchestra sometimes seemed too heavy and loud to allow Kremer’s violin tone to cut the texture. There was also less interaction between the soloist and the orchestra than might be expected.

The following Langsam was very tender indeed, having a sweetness and yearning that took me in the direction of Tchaikovsky. The extrovert finale brought out some of the violinist’s characteristic spikiness and rhythmic push, but there was still an abiding sweetness with a fleeting tinge of sadness in the cadenza. This was very considered and sophisticated playing. While one might doubt the merits of the violin arrangement, I thought Kremer’s advocacy was mainly convincing, though a smaller chamber orchestra could better achieve the type of refined dynamics and textures needed to enhance its special flavour.

Kremer’s encore, Weinberg’s Cello Prelude Op.100 No.5, expanded this exploration: it innovates on the beautiful lyrical theme from the concerto’s opening movement. This was vintage Kremer: the pristine fineness of tone, the immense feeling and the supreme concentration and purity of utterance. I enjoyed this more modern take as much as the concerto; it gave special insight into what the artist is made of.

The concert began with Samy Moussa’s Orpheus for piano and orchestra. Moussa impressed with his Nocturne at the 2018 New Music Festival, but the current piece was quite different. It develops from the simplest of chord sequences, and the piano mimics these. More dramatic and darker intimations set in, with more insistent piano writing, yet I still thought it all seemed a bit too simple. Then I thought about works like Poulenc’s Aubade and some of Saint-Saëns: simple and tuneful, yes, but fetching in their innocence. That’s the feeling I got here: a lighter piece that communicates directly, with some virtuoso piano writing and a few mock-dramatics inserted to titillate the listener. It was an interesting venture on a new style for this young composer who apparently had just finished a 40-minute symphony. Michael Abramovich’s piano playing was an additional delight.

Tausk’s Bruckner 4 seemed a fledgling effort. The conductor aimed to exhibit the power in the work without quite realizing that the success of its majestic brass climaxes depends on how skillfully one achieves an organic flow and suspends the quieter moments of space and contemplation. Tausk always wanted to tighten the lyrical episodes, not sit with their beauty, and the consequence was that his phrases were too short and flat to allow a truly Brucknerian romantic line. The result was sort of a generic romanticism interspersed by climaxes. To add to this, the horns were not at their best, and the woodwinds did not have enough expressive sensitivity to carry the narrative well. Both the first and second movements started out creditably but soon became sectionalized from lack of underlying flow or tension. Future historians will likely ponder the huge swell from the basses during a late transition in the latter movement. The rollicking brass climaxes of the Scherzo came out underpowered, since Tausk placed the climax too early in their build-up. The finale tried to be cataclysmic but ended up more like a Star Wars expedition than a communion with nature’s commanding bounty, something the humble organist from Linz could never have visualized.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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