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Gidon Kremer: Upstaged by his protégés

The Daily Telegraph – Matthew Rye – Kremerata Baltica was set up by the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer in 1997 to nurture the cream – or crema, if you will – of talent among musicians from the three Baltic states. Fundamentally a string orchestra, with occasional input from wind or percussion, it seemed on this stop of its 10th-anniversary tour that it is in danger of topping the master himself.

You have to learn to take the rough with the smooth in Kremer's playing, which is why so often his performances of modern music succeed better than those of the classics – his scratch-and-sniff disc of Bach solo sonatas and partitas of 2005 was more exhausting than enlightening, for example. And now his intonation appears to be going, too.

He opened this Barbican concert as a rather tonally wayward soloist in the UK première of a new string-orchestral version of Arvo Pärt's 2003 Passacaglia.

With its procession of regular staccato notes and chords, it seems to take off from where "Winter" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons ends: five minutes of this, a final flourish of modal melody and it's all over. It was all over, too, for the player of the virtually inaudible vibraphone, who had to wait a full two hours before reappearing for a Piazzolla-ish encore.

But it was in Victor Kissine's superfluous bulking up of Beethoven's Op 127 String Quartet that Kremer was really shown up by his younger protégés. As section leader of the first violins, his wiry colouring and often dodgy tuning were constantly upstaged by the principals of the other string sections.

It didn't help that Kissine, a Russian composer now based in Belgium whose arrangements of quartets for string orchestra have become something of a Kremerata fixture, uses so much solo work; otherwise his version dissipates the concentration that Beethoven sought in these late quartets, and I was left thinking: why?

Things improved immeasurably after the interval, when Kremer took the solo role in Mendelssohn's childhood D minor Violin Concerto. His intonation was at last spot on and his energy in the outer movements was counterbalanced by a more tender tone colouring in the central andante.

Finally, the young string orchestra was left to itself to tackle Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.

Although performing this string sextet with an orchestra of 22 players potentially leads to imbalance (the violin parts get six players each, the violas just two), it was a problem commandingly overcome, with only some untidiness in the finale's fugue marring an account full of vigour and passion.