CLASSICAL MUSIC Gidon Kremer's Schubert Series Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
"In an attempt to quench my insatiable curiosity for art, Schubert has been one of my constant companions. Rarely do I experience in a composer's music such an intriguing combination of unending lightness of spirit and intense melancholy, of economy of musical language and avalanches of sound. This musical balancing act is so detailed and so dramatic that it demands complete personal involvement from both the listener and the performer, resulting in a uniquely satisfying musical experience." The eloquent words of Gidon Kremer, who appears to be first off the blocks to celebrate the bicentenary of Schubert's birth. As usual, Kremer has come up with something unusual, making a genuine artistic contribution out of this schlocky anniversary business. For Schubert, like Mozart, needs no special pleading: homage to a composer must mean the celebration of composition as a gift rather than the celebration of a single gift. And so, over the course of the next three months, in London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Paris and Vienna, three chamber concerts have been programmed, using differing instrumental combinations and including work inspired by the composer.

The first - and the largest scale - took place at the Barbican on Monday, Kremer leading the excellent young Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in a canter round some of Schubert's lesser known works for chamber orchestra. This is music of utter charm even if much of it, like charm itself, is superficial. Schubert's Overture in C "In Italian Style" (D591) oozes Rossini; the Concert Piece in D (D345), a small-scale violin concerto, wears Beethoven on its sleeve; the Polonaise in B flat (D580), the Adagio and Rondo in A (D438), and Webern's mildly astringent arrangements of Schubert's German Dances (D820) all need special pleading. In the hands of lesser artists, the music stands no chance but with Kremer, this music flies. His lightness of bow, sweetness of tone and cultivated poise makes the smell of the Viennese coffee house almost palpable.

It took the sombre sounds of Sofia Gubaidulina to remind us of Schubert's greatest gift: ambivalence in joy and pain. Impromptu, receiving its UK premiere, is an exquisite small-scale concerto for flute / alto flute, violin and strings. Beginning, shockingly, with a direct quotation on the flute from Schubert's most familiar piano Impromptu in A flat minor / major, any perkiness through the repetition of this motif is gradually ground down to the grim, dark world of the other main motif - a rocking semitone introduced by the violin. Like her contemporary, Alfred Schnittke, Gubaidulina plays with the contrast between old and new. She intersperses free, menacing sections, temporarily relieved by the Schubert quotation, only to end on an early floating, ambiguous A flat minor / A minor chord. Irena Grafenauer brought rich colouring as the flute soloist.

The other new work, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, by the Russian composer Alexander Vustin, has less to offer. Written in three movements and requiring the conductor to speak - "You ask if I write happy music?" - Kremer scratched, skittered and soared against percussion overload. Little flying in this case.