The cognoscenti’s violinist and his group of young Balto-Slavic collaborators performed to a large Russian-speaking contingent in a packed Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Saturday. Gidon Kremer has always championed young talent and contemporary music and the evening featured both. Except for the Brahms Sonata No. 4 for violin and piano, the concert looked to post-Stalin Slavic modernism. Composers ranged from the well- to lesser-known—Shostakovich to Silvestrov (Ukrainian, born in 1937).
For ‘Homage à J. S. B. for 2 violins and piano (Quasi Eco) 2009, by Valentin Vasilievich Silvestrov (b. 1937), the musicians came onstage in summer casual concert attire. The violinist appeared in a grey long sleeve cotton shirt and blue vest; the pianist, Yulianna Avdeeva in black pants and floral tunic, the other violinist, Madara Petersone in a flowing black silken ensemble. Kremer, now 76, walks slowly, and somewhat hesitantly. But his chops have not faded; his lovely singing tone, great care in soft passages and technical daring remain strong.
The ‘Hommage’, in three movements, uses Bach-like figures, reminiscent of the great Chaconne in D minor. One hears recurring arpeggiated motifs in the first andantino. The second, also andantino, introduces tonality as well. Written in 2009, Silvestrov juxtaposes diatonic with atonal and polytonal harmonies, always using broad dynamic color. The result feels new, and yet, warmly familiar. The ensemble playing was perfection. The composer, 84, who lived in Kyiv until the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, now lives in Berlin, “a refugee from bombs and missiles.” Due to his reduced circumstances, fellow musicians and organizations have raised funds so that he can continue to live in Germany until he can safely return home.
Another Chaconne came from the pen of Sofia Gubaidulina (1931), the great Russian composer. Written in 1962 for solo piano, a major contemporary work for piano, beautifully written for the instrument and requiring endurance, strength and a broad dynamic palette. The only other post-modern contemporary piano work that compares in beauty and the demands it makes on the player is Frederic Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’(1975). The Gubaidulina is perhaps the more challenging of the two.
Yulianna Avdeeva dispatched it from memory in one of the great moments of the evening. She captured the daring as well as the formal structure of the work: the chaconne in the bass ever-present, even when hidden by the upper voices. The crowd went wild. Her bio speaks to her brilliant career in Europe, especially after having won First prize in the 2010 Chopin Competition.
Gidon Kremer then followed with a performance of the Requiem, for Violin Solo (2014) by Georgian composer, Igor Loboda (1956). He regularly dedicates this work, commissioned by Georgian violinist, Lisa Batiashvili in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea …” to the endless sufferings of Ukraine.” Alone, modest, Kremer disappeared into the music with its somber beginning and harsh tonal melody, ending with repeated gradually disappearing pizzicati, the last a plucked pianissimo. Through the agency of this great artist the eight minutes felt like a Kaddish.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), a long-neglected Polish-born composer, is a favorite of Kremer. His music was admired by Shostakovich. with the established composer encouraging and mentoring his younger colleague. Sonata No. 4, for Violin and Piano, op. 39 (1947), written before Stalin’s death in 1953, is a ruminative work. The first movement., Adagio, begins with a long piano solo, basically tonal in no identifiable key. The violin enters on a major chord and then into a polytonal landscape. The overall musical atmosphere is one of tension, with moments of lyricism. Listening, one realizes that Weinberg, as well as other Soviet composers, was cut off from the West, a West deep into academic music and aleatory experiments. Yet, these musicians, however experimental (and, of course, Stalin controlled the arts), always had a sense of line, of lyricism, of song.
The second movement, very fast, was played with an ensemble that left one breathless; at times its rhythms and harmonies sounding like Igor Stravinsky. The third, a calm, dreamy violin tune with a final pizzicato, beautiful in its simplicity, ends this important work by Weinberg.
We had been alerted earlier in the evening to expect Rockport’s Fireworks Night on the water, so after intermission, the sound of gentle explosions intermittently accompanied the music. Kremer didn’t seem to mind, nor did we. Alfred Schnittke based his MOZ-ART À LA HAYDN a “game with music”, on a surviving violin part from Mozart’s lost pantomime suite K. 416d (???). There were lots of disparate elements, a bit of the Little G-minor Symphony kept popping up, with occasional fireworks to enhance the humor. As Schnittke considered this a theatrical work, an overhead orange floodlight turned Madara Petersone’s violin blood-red.
Brahms’s (1833-1897) Sonata in D Minor, op. 108 for Violin and Piano (1886) began with a lyrical first movement avoiding large gestures. There was a lightness to this interpretation. The familiar beautiful sounds were there, not in contrast to Slavic modernism, but as part of the violin and piano sonata tradition. Avdeeva collaborated beautifully, supporting, as well as, enhancing her partner, yet she also stood up to her partner with equality. In the second movement, Kremer adopted a more guttural tone (fireworks off the water heard), yet also bright, but sensual. The third movement sparkled with wit, and the last unfolded big and bold. Kremer dominates the stage these days with a humility born of profound understanding and advocacy for composers. His sound was big but never showy or narcissistic. This beloved sonata came to us in full glory.
The concert ended with a surprise (as if we needed more surprises), Shostakovich’s Three Pieces for 2 Violins and Piano arranged by Levon Atovmyan. Not in the least ‘contemporary’, these three pieces originated in youthful works for film, theater and ballet. Shostakovich supported himself early on by writing for the film industry and was quite at ease in turning out these charmers.
Thus Gidon Kremer and his young musicians came to the end of the printed program, but not the end of the evening. All three artists, with the fireworks as counterpoint, encored with a capricious and sweet bouquet of exquisite folk tunes that brought an unforgettable concert to a close.