Kremer made an indelible impression more than two decades ago with the BSO playing the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's profoundly spiritual violin concerto, Offertorium. A similar spirituality infiltrates Rejoice (1981), a sonata for the unusual combination of violin and cello (the strong and imaginative young Lithuanian cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite), often contrasting full-on pitches with eerie dog-whistle harmonics. Sometimes the violin dances while the cello sings, sometimes they are dueling. Movements veer between the angry and the consoling. A frustrating program note made reference to the important titles of each of the five movements, which quote the Ukrainian philosopher Grigory Skovoroda, but these titles were nowhere to be found in the program book (the first movement is, "Your joy no one will take away from you"; the last, "Heed thyself"). Near the end, the harmonies sounded as otherworldly as the music surrounding Tom Rakewell in the mental hospital in Stravinsky's Rake's Progress.
Zlabys, from Lithuania like the cellist, also had a solo Chaconne (this was a very carefully interwoven program): Gubaidulina's early (1962) and vigorously percussive workout. But except for Zlabys's dexterity and huge, clear sound, its interest lay mainly as a foreshadowing of later, more compelling Gubaidulina.
The formal program ended with another masterwork: Shostakovich's rambunctious and poignant Trio No. 2, with its ever-shifting moods and its obsessive but ebullient Klezmer finale. Kremer and his two young partners made a terrific team, playing off one another and never holding back. The audience wouldn't let them go and so we got an unfamiliar encore, a super-romantic trio with gypsy elements cutting through the schmaltz, which Kremer didn't identify. Guesses ranged from Fauré, Schumann, and Arensky to (my guess) Fritz Kreisler. Turned out to be the 1902 Elegy for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Opus 23, by Josef Suk, Dvorak's student and son-in-law. A big-hearted and generous dessert.
Another outstanding Russian violinist and pedagogue, Ilya Kaler, returned to the Boston Philharmonic to play another warhorse that ended up sounding freshly inspired and exhilarating. Kaler, who towers over even BPO music director Benjamin Zander, is a passionate and rhythmically "independent" player — big-toned, warm-toned, big-hearted (including "sobbing" grace notes). He's a kind of fiddling geyser — music seems to well up from his toes and pour out of him like a force of nature.
The collaboration worked well. Zander gave Kaler the freedom he needed, but could also rein him in when community was necessary, as at the end of the big first movement, when after an expansive solo cadenza Kaler became part of a grand, lilting Polonaise. The songful slow-movement was almost a lullaby, Kaler gorgeously just on this side of excessive milking. The Finale–Allegro vivacissimo stormed the barricades and had us all on our feet. Kaler was called back repeatedly and played an encore, solo Bach, the intricate Fuga from the Partita No. 3, which with its old-fashioned old-country rubato sounded much more like Tchaikovsky than the refined and touching Bach into which it soon settled.
Kaler wasn't the only soloist that evening. In the opening Sibelius tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, the orchestra's principal oboist, Peggy Pearson, on English horn, embodied with exquisite and melancholy dignity the underworld swan of Finnish legend floating on its dark lake of death.