Gidon Kremer inspired many of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's violin pieces, and Kremer has continued to champion Schnittke's music since his death in 1998. With Kremer's eyes almost closed in the Piano Quintet on Thursday night, he might have been channeling the composer.
The Latvian-born violinist, now 60 , was in Boston for a chamber music program at First Church, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Foundation of New England. He brought with him members of his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, cast as the Kremeratini Quartet , and together they performed a demanding program -- for listeners as well as performers -- that included Sofia Gubaidulina's "Reflections on B-A-C-H" and one of Beethoven's late quartets (Op. 132). It was a well-thought- out combination: The Gubaidulina served as a curtain-raiser for the Schnittke, and the Beethoven seemed to reside in the same universe of desperate gestures and broken dreams.
Schnittke moved beyond 12-tone serial composition to an eclectic mix of styles he called "polystylism," aimed at combining serious and humorous language. So, in the piano quintet, the piano (played exquisite ly by Andrius Zlabys) seems pleasantly lost in 19th-century "gemütlichkeit," while the strings make a groaning, droning, keening noise at fractional intervals and off-kilter rhythms. They occasionally come together for a waltz, or are called to order by a major chord from the piano, before tonality reverts to banality with a Schumann-like turn repeated to silence.
Kremer is a minimalist, playing with little vibrato and eschewing any showy gesture, even when the music (especially in the Beethoven) seems to call for it. His talented younger colleagues played with firmer, fatter tone, but Kremer, with his spare style and intense focus, seemed to draw the music toward him, and into itself. One could imagine the Beethoven being played with more anguish, more frustrated drama, but this reading was as clear and compelling as an X-ray. The encore was a tango ("Fear," from "Five Tango Sensations" ) by Astor Piazzolla , with Kremerata member Andrei Pushkarev on the xylophone.