Classical review: Tchaikovsky

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2011 - 11:04 AM

Violinist Gidon Kremer offers a modernist take on two trios.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio, Op. 50. Victor Kissine: "Zerkalo." Gidon Kremer, violin; Giedre Dirvanauskaite, cello; Khatia Buniatishvili, piano. ECM New Series 476 4171 (CD).

Connoisseurs of the violin have never quite known what to make of Gidon Kremer. Son of two violinists, grandson of a third, he was born in Riga (then in Soviet Latvia) in 1947, studied with the peerless David Oistrakh and won the career-making Tchaikovsky Competition at 23. Conductor Herbert von Karajan called him the greatest violinist of his generation.

Yet Kremer has shunned the path of the romantic virtuoso, preferring to seek out the more remote corners of the repertoire and to champion composers as dissimilar as Alfred Schnittke and Astor Piazzolla. In 1981 he established a chamber-music festival in Lockenhaus, Austria; in 1997 he founded Kremerata Baltica, a string orchestra that draws its 23 players from the Baltic countries and has produced a remarkable series of recordings for the Nonesuch and ECM labels, most recently "De Profundis."

Kremer's latest is a CD of piano trios by Tchaikovsky and the Schnittke-influenced Victor Kissine ("Zerkalo," written in 2009), recorded with Lithuanian cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite, a Kremerata regular, and Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, heard previously on the group's "Hymns and Prayers" disc. Their account of the Tchaikovsky, easily his finest chamber work, is in the modernist vein: calculated and somewhat astringent in tone, with steady, often deliberate tempos and a tendency to fixate on the music's darker moments. It's far from the only way to play this elegiac trio -- for a more impetuous approach, try Kremer's live recording (1998) with Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky, or, better, the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky version (1950), still stunning after all these years -- but for contemporary sensibilities, it may be the best entry into this sprawling piece.

"Zerkalo" (Mirror) takes as its departure point two lines from poet Anna Akhmatova: "The mirror dreams only of the mirror. Silence watches over silence." The work's silences are its most potent element. Like the Tchaikovsky (whose heart rate it seems to approximate), it rewards repeated hearings.

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