“Shostakovich and Friends” was an obvious label for the compelling program offered Saturday at the Ordway (on the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series) by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica — a superlative ensemble of youngish string players from the Baltic states, founded by the great Latvian violinist and director in 1997.
Obvious, that is, until a sudden death in the family of bass soloist Alexei Mochalov, who was slated to sing all four vocal parts in a rare performance of Shostakovich’s “Little Anti-formalist Paradise” — a wicked sendup of Stalinist cultural policy — necessitated a late change. The group reached into its repertoire and pulled out short works by Benjamin Britten, who was close to Shostakovich, and Arvo Pärt, who wasn’t. In the event, few listeners can have been disappointed.
The concert opened with a 1948 Concertino for Violin and Strings by Moisey Weinberg (1919-96) — an astonishingly prolific composer, long a member of Shostakovich’s inner circle. A Polish-born Jew who suffered horribly under both Hitler and Stalin, Weinberg (whose nomenclature is unstable: his family name is sometimes spelled Vainberg or Vaynberg, his given name is also rendered as Mieczyslaw) may finally be emerging from decades of neglect: a recent production of “The Passenger,” his Holocaust opera, was acclaimed in Houston, and a two-CD set, vividly recorded by Kremer and colleagues for ECM New Series, has just been released.
Weinberg was the pianist at the private “pre-premiere” of Shostakovich’s dark, inward-looking Sonata for Violin and Piano (1968), written as a 60th-birthday present for the incomparable David Oistrakh, who for eight years was Kremer’s teacher. But in Saturday’s performance of the sonata there was no piano: the work was heard in a 2005 arrangement (by Mikhail Zinman and Andrei Pushkarev) for violin solo, strings and percussion.
Though searingly played, this somewhat extroverted version didn’t always serve the music, at times lending it an unwanted rhetorical cast. But it was telling in more apocalyptic passages, and may prompt listeners to seek out the original.
Music by and about Britten (whose centenary was celebrated last year) filled the concert’s second half and elicited some of its best playing. The Englishman’s Mahler-haunted “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” (1937), an unsparing portrait of Europe on the brink of war, sounded like the early masterpiece it is; the manic coloratura of the “Aria Italiana” variation was brilliantly executed.
Pianist Andruis Zlabys swept the keys arrestingly in Britten’s “Young Apollo” (1939), a slight fanfare that the composer withdrew. And Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” — like the Shostakovich sonata, a meditation on death — was stunning in its concentration. The Kremerata musicians, here led inconspicuously by concertmaster Dzeraldas Bidva, married symphonic discipline with soloistic intensity.
Capping the program were two delicious encores: Weinberg’s “Bonifatsy’s Holidays” (about a circus lion) and Giya Kancheli’s “Rag — Gidon — Time,” the latter worth the price of admission.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.