CD Review: ‘New Seasons’ for a new century

Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica hit another gorgeous note
in their latest recording of new music by accessible modern composers.

Violinist Gidon Kremer.
Violinist Gidon Kremer. (From the composer's web site.)

CHICAGO, June 28, 2015 – Today, we review an intriguing new Deutsche Grammophon recording that exemplifies our developing 21st century classical music era. It’s offered by violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica, a chamber ensemble of young Baltic musicians hailing from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that he founded in 1997.

"New Seasons" jewel case cover.
“New Seasons” jewel case cover.

Where new music is concerned today, what scant audiences are left for it increasingly tread outside of the diktats of academic modernism. Where the recording industry is concerned, the age of the mandatory, forced curation of high modernism seems to be passing.

Listeners can once again feel an active part of the process of bringing new works into the world, as they are once again able to discover composers who actually create music with audiences and listeners like them in mind.

Today, for example, there is no need to get bogged down debating the meaning of the label “minimalism,” which composers like Philip Glass soundly reject. What matters is that for those who still care about serious music to “listen up.” There is a friendlier and more humanistic modernism available to them, one that treads bravely but still clings to its considerable cultural and spiritual roots.

Violinist Gidon Kremer has made numerous forays into programming such works, and his most recent recording, “New Seasons,” is another valuable contribution to the unfolding history of modern music.

Kremer claims that all of the composers selected for this recording – in their own unique ways – are workers of “minimal materials” who are individually “concerned with their soul.” The transcendent works on this CD certainly reflect this reality.

The disc begins with the American “minimalist” master Glass’s “Violin Concerto No. 2: The American Four Seasons” (2009). In place of the traditional cadenza, the work pairs a short solo prelude with each of the four main movements. Each of these is understated in a Glassian way, into which Kremer’s minimal affectivity plays quite well.

The addition of a harpsichord to the ensemble in this performance may be an effective nod both to history and the eternally famous Vivaldi “Seasons.” But it also becomes an effective vehicle for Glass’s turbulent textures and sonorities. As the work progresses, it enters increasingly familiar territory for lovers of Glass’s music, while the third and fourth movements burst with energy and verve.

Briefly inserted between two longer works on this recording is the short “Estonian Lullaby” of Arvo Pärt. Pärt collectors, in particular, will be grateful to Kremer for committing this little gem of a work to media. A sweet and unassuming statement, the “Lullaby” also clears the musical palette while providing a bridge to the sound-world of Giya Kancheli.

Kancheli’s “Ex contrario” for solo violin, cello, keyboard, and chamber orchestra is a singularly powerful work that begins as if suspended in an ocean of calm, glorying in the long sostenutos and subtle colorations available from the string family. Briefly working itself into a frenzy towards the very middle of the work, the music quickly drops back into its vast panorama of calm, undulating textures, only briefly interrupted by small gestural frictions, which ultimately vanish into light.

Kremer’s recording ends with a beautiful and somewhat unexpected touch: Shigeru Umebayashi’s lovely “Yumeji’s Theme” from the much-lauded Chinese film “In the Mood for Love.” The composer’s simple cinematic texture provides Kremer with perhaps the most traditionally expressive material on the entire recording, even as the music takes leave from us in a gentle yet unexpected fashion.

Almost 20 years after its founding, Kremer’s “Kremerata Baltica” ensemble maintains a freshness of sound and a youthful energy as clearly exemplified on this marvelous recording. For fans of simple beauty, chamber music ancient and modern, or the “minimal” masters featured on this disc, this is a recording that is clearly worth owning.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

“New Seasons” is available via and elsewhere.

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