By Andrew Clements

The Guardian
April 22, 2006

The chamber orchestra that the violinist Gidon Kremer founded in 1997 as a 50th-birthday present to himself is now an established part of the international touring circuit. Made up of young professionals from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Kremerata Baltica is a northern equivalent of the central European Mahler Chamber Orchestra, though there are crucial differences between the two bands. The Kremerata’s performances sometimes suggest that it is much more of an orchestral finishing school than the real thing, and crucially it still lacks its own, separate identity, remaining very much an orchestra in Kremer’s image.

As usual, Kremer is leading, directing and appearing as a soloist on the group’s current British tour, whose programmes have been planned to mark the year’s two most significant anniversaries. At St Luke’s, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and the Serenata Notturna were interleaved with Shostakovich’s early Two Pieces For Octet and the second of the two chamber symphonies that Rudolf Barshai has arranged from the string quartets, in this case from the 10th, Op 118.There have been plenty of opportunities already to hear Mozart and Shostakovich juxtaposed, but few, I’d guess, in which the works by Shostakovich made so much more of an impression than here. In particular, Kremer’s almost perfunctory approach to the Sinfonia Concertante seemed determined to keep the work at an emotional distance, and though his solo partnership with viola player Ula Ulijona was perfectly integrated, it seemed less that of two distinct musical personalities swapping ideas, than one player dominating and the other following.There is something about the Kremerata’s full-blooded playing, though, that suits early Shostakovich, and the two Octet pieces (all that the young composer completed of a projected four-movement work) were thrillingly vivid. The programme didn’t reveal whose transcription for a larger string orchestra this was, but the edgy, expressionist quality of the writing had been perfectly preserved, including the extraordinary sonority in the scherzo second movement, when two unison violas, one pizzicato, the other playing bowed tremolandos, conjure up a quite other-worldly sound.