Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Profound spirit of Gidon Kremer


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At 63, violinist Gidon Kremer, like his equally great colleague and frequent performing partner, pianist Martha Argerich, is as likely to be heard playing with other musicians as he is solo. In any case, that's the way you can catch him on Sun., Oct. 31, 3 p.m., at a Cal Performances concert in Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium with his Kremerata Baltica. In addition to the late Beethoven Quartet, Op. 131, the ensemble will play items from its new Nonesuch CD, De Profundis.

Don't write this concert off as the now de rigueur CD tour. Kremer, a product of the Soviet musical system that has produced so many of the world's leading musicians, is, like the best of them, an artist who left the system for a host of reasons, and is as independent a thinker and spirit as could be imagined.

The CD's title – the poet's cry, "Out of the depths. I cry to you o Lord," from Psalm 130 – augurs weightier, more depressing fare than this highly mixed program offers. In fact, the music spans such a huge range that listening to it all in sequence somehow diminishes the effect of the individual works. But there's little you'd call dirge-like.

Still, Kremer appends a note that the music is "especially urgent in our time," when greed, focused primarily on oil extracted "from the depths," threatens our Earth. Kremer, his own seemingly tireless energy undiminished, offers this music as an alternate energy source. He further dedicates the disc to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom he calls a "true Russian patriot who has endured years of imprisonment in Siberia under false pretenses" despite his work to make Russia a better country.

The Cal Performances website lists a program that includes the short Arvo Paert Passacaglia from this CD and two other items I found particularly gripping: Lera Auerbach's "Sogno di Stabat Mater," which compellingly overlays muted strings with vibraphone in an earthy, pulsing piece, and Georgs Pelecis' truly perfumed "Flowering Jasmine."

In the event they're not performed Sunday, the CD includes other music about which I was previously entirely unaware that I would not now want to live without. Sibelius' Scene with Cranes, a fascinating, multi-sectional work, opens as if in Desdemona's bedchamber in Act IV of Otello before venturing into other, equally compelling musical realms. Schubert's Minuet No. 3 and Trios in D minor, D. 89, brings to light still more gems from that seemingly inexhaustible store of "lesser" works by this songster of the tragic. And Astor Piazzolla's Melodia en La menor (Canto de Octubre) – the "topical" number, given the date of the concert – adds

another bit of evidence to the appraisal of this still-underappreciated composer as a first-rate genius.

Alternate official word – believe the publicist of your choice – has it that, on this same tour, the Kremerata will perform the final work – Giya Kancheli's "Silent Prayer" – on its just-released CD, Hymns and Prayers (ECM New Series), which has already made my short list for CD of the year. The piece was to have celebrated the 80th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich, as well as Kremer's 60th, but Kancheli gave the completed work its title upon learning of the death of the legendary cellist.

Scored for solo violin and cello, chamber orchestra and tape, "Silent Prayer" is in a strict sense more de profundis than anything on the Nonesuch CD. Slow, spare, ruminative, yearning, it floats its haunting way through 21 minutes of grieving, tremulous string sonorities and a childlike vocal descant. There's a jaunty, circus-like episode midway, but its robust, life-affirming strains are forever being drawn back into the more evanescent sound world of what feels like the next life. Much of the solo music is at the upper extremes of the violin's and cello's range, giving the work its exquisite feeling of yearning. A taped drone from what sounds like an Indian tempura seeks to ground the piece, but despite occasional, slashing interruptions from the strings, the piece makes its prayerful, nonviolent way to a radiant transcendence.

The CD opens with Hungarian composer Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer's Eight Hymns in memoriam Andrei Tarkovsky, honoring the late Russian filmmaker. Like Kancheli's piece, it was already completed, albeit in a different form, before word of Tarkovsky's death reached the composer, who has recomposed it expressly for the Kremerata. It's a work of unbroken solemnity and cumulative, aching beauty.

Separating the two is an arresting performance of Cesar Franck's rarely heard F minor Piano Quintet. It's a work of smoldering beauty, with an ear trained to the beyond. The middle movement recalls not only Franck's extraordinary violin sonata, but the legendary live Moscow Conservatory performance of it by David Oistrakh, Kremer's teacher, and Sviatoslav Richter. Kremer, at his searing, sensitive best, and his Kremerata colleagues, do their forebears proud.

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