Kremerata Baltica, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco – review

Gidon Kremer’s ensemble focused on the work of Mieczyslaw Weinberg

It is not outrageous to think of Gidon Kremer as the most questing fiddler of our age. He long ago exhausted the standard violin repertoire and he created an ensemble comprised of string players who would follow him to a territory that lies beyond the safe and conventional. Kremerata Baltica’s current US tour is, as usual, strong on revelation and short on formula.

The focus of the group’s latest project is Warsaw-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), whose Jewish background and disdain of convention made his life hellish under both the Nazis and the Stalinist arbiters of acceptable art. Although he evaded the spotlight, only his friend Dmitri Shostakovich saved him from the firing squad. Thanks to Kremer and others, attention is now being paid. In recent seasons, major companies have produced Weinberg’s opera, The Passenger, to considerable acclaim. The sampling of his string music in this concert (available on a new two-CD set from ECM) also testifies to a case of serious neglect.

Having chosen two works drawn from Weinberg’s mid-career, Kremer led a heroic performance of the Symphony No. 10 (1968). The five movements do not propose much in the way of symphonic form, nor, unlike with Shostakovich, does one sense a political undercurrent or a cathartic soul-baring. One does find multipart string writing of dazzling invention, constantly astonishing beyond the half-hour mark. Even the two double basses prove they are capable of songful utterance; the viola solos attain rare moments of eloquence and Weinberg winds it up with a full-voiced chorale.

In contrast, the 1948 Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra abounds in easy charm. The opening allegretto finds Weinberg at his most lyrical; Kremer intones one of those irresistible melodies that get passed around among the players and lodge in the listener’s ear for hours. String ensembles should be fighting to perform it.

The violinist showed us his more introspective aspect in the Shostakovich Violin Sonata (in an unnecessary string orchestra and percussion arrangement), spinning out the concluding passacaglia like an exhalation. Without its illustrious leader, the formidable young band offered Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The full-bore attacks and limited deployment of vibrato captured the work’s youthful high spirits.

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