It is not every day that one gets to hear a musician of Gidon Kremer’s stature in an intimate chamber music venue. This is undoubtedly why Longy School of Music’s Pickman Auditorium was packed to the rafters on October 10, Columbus Day, despite rather stiff ticket prices, to hear Kremer along with fellow Balts Giedre Dirvanauskaite, cello, and Andrius Zlabys, piano (he’s Latvian, they’re Lithuanian), in a program of mostly Russian music of the 20th and 21st centuries. The concert was presented as part of Longy’s “Unique Visions” series, which brings in distinguished performers from outside the Longy community.
We were slightly taken aback (but nevertheless mostly delighted) at the matter-of-factness with which the concert was conducted: no audience warm-up; no greetings; no acknowledgments, fundraising or oral program notes; not even (this might have been, but luckily wasn’t, problematic) the admonition to turn off one’s phone—the concert just began. What it began with, on a stage totally bare but for a music stand, was Valentin Silvestrov’s Homage to J.S. Bach, written in 2002, for violin—and offstage piano. The brief work was largely a meditation on the famous Chaconne in d minor from Bach’s second violin partita, BWV 1004, broken into jagged fragments that were then, so to speak, turned around in the hand for inspection before gradually being softened and joined back together. There was a middle section of vaguely Viennese salon music of whose aesthetic purpose we were not entirely sure—it might have been a nostalgic invocation of music-making at home; it might have been a sardonic contrast between real music and kitsch. Sonically, the meditation was enhanced by having the piano played (presumably by the occulted Mr. Zlabys) from offstage: it provided ghostly resonance to the notes of the chaconne and a far-away dreaminess to the salon music. At the conclusion, the violin’s quiet pizzicato and the piano’s echoes become indistinguishable from one another, a well-done effect.
Kremer didn’t even give the audience a chance to gather its wits for applause before launching into that on which the Silvestrov commented (an almost Ivesian touch: the working-out before the theme). Of course, there is plenty of both compositional and physical working out for the performer in the Chaconne. A good thing Kremer decided to play the Silvestrov before the Bach; it would have been a serious let-down had he done the reverse. Kremer’s playing in the Silvestrov seemed rather tentative, but the Bach was as bold as the other was pallid. It was not, perhaps, as careful a performance as it might have been, but Kremer thrilled the house with brilliant dynamic contrasts without any loss of tension or momentum, as well as his monumental, architectural conception of the piece.
The first part of the program ended with the first of two works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Rejoice—Sonata for Violin and Cello (1981). Kremer has recorded this with Yo-Yo Ma, and is a staunch advocate of her deeply spiritual music. We will focus on this work partly because of its and its composer’s relative scarcity on Boston stages, partly simply because of its merit. Rejoice was in four movements, though by our count it seemed like five. (Would it have hurt to put the movements and their titles in the program?) The brief first movement, Your joy no one will take away from you, set the tone for the whole as being a work in which articulations count at least as much as notes. It set up a dialogue in ordinary articulation and harmonics, beginning with the violin. Not all of Kremer’s harmonics produced clean sounds—possibly they were double-stops, we couldn’t see—but others were intensely resonant, like Franklin’s tuned glasses. The cello’s entrance brought a contrasting idea, mostly in glissandi, and a silvery continuation of the violin harmonics before the conclusion.
The second movement, Rejoice with joy, was a sort of scherzo in a marked triple meter, with twining chromatic figures and strands of melody like a descant. A long slow movement (Rejoice Ravvi) followed, full of keening in the upper reaches of the cello, growls in the lower, harmonics in both instruments and misterioso tremolo sul ponticello. All of this seemed structural, but repeated hearings seem necessary to put these elements in place (the Kremer-Ma recording is on Spotify). Eventually there was a concord of a sort, with both instruments in sync. What we originally thought was another movement presented a predominance of soft harmonics, a sort of Martian hymnody that gradually came closer to earth—all to stunning effect. The finale, Heed thyself, was a surprise, beginning with a vehement scherzo in mock-Shostakovich style, which continued in the violin while the cello adopted a broader, more lyrical tone and continued in a soulful monologue. The piece faded out in quiet spiccato.
This is powerful, intense, and deeply-felt music that bears repeated listening. Kremer and Dirvanauskaite gave a powerful, intense, and deeply-felt performance that had plainly been subject to much thought and preparation—well worth the price of admission.
After intermission, more Gubaidulina of a very different sort: her much earlier Chaconne for Piano Solo (1962), the theme being a noisy sequence of chords with motivic nods to the Baroque. The variations explored the extremes of the instrument’s register, dynamics, and texture, with what seemed like the occasional tip of the hat to Prokofiev and Shostakovich (an influential mentor to Gubaidulina), especially the B-flat minor prelude in chaconne form from the latter’s op. 87. It was, nevertheless, a musically slighter work than the duo sonata. Zlabys, a man with hands to rival jackhammers, was duly impressive in technique and power, with admirable clarity of line when called for.
Which brings us to the closing work on the program, Shostakovich’s epochal Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67. We have had the pleasure of hearing this great work recently in a stellar performance described here. Having therefore no need to repeat the general discussion of the piece, we can cut to the chase and observe that, as eminent a performer as Kremer is, and as obviously talented and technically secure are Dirvanauskaite and Zlabys, their performance seldom rose to the interpretive levels we experienced a few weeks ago. Our sense is that these fine players spent most of their rehearsal on Gubaidulina and trusted to their skill and probable familiarity with the Shostakovich to carry them through, a plan which unfortunately did not succeed. We found the first movement overbalanced toward the piano, the second movement insufficiently mordant in the outer sections. The third movement chaconne (do we detect a unifying theme here?) was the best, and stirringly conveyed. The finale we found bizarre at first, the opening tunes stiff and stilted; if there was an intentional concept behind that, the players should lose it. The movement did finally come together at the end of the development, just before the return of the first movement’s main theme, and continued in a strong manner to the end—though our overall impression by then had been rather soured.
For the record, the trio performed an encore, a chromatically inflected late 19th-century work with which we were unfamiliar, and whose identity the performers did not see fit to disclose; interesting, if a bit out of step with the rest of the program.