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A performance of daring originality, ferocious honesty

November 20, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas

for Violin Solo

Gidon Kremer, violin (ECM)

* * * *

BACK when Gidon Kremer was young, when the Latvian-born Tchaikovsky Competition winner was known as a "Russian" violinist, Herbert von Karajan called him the greatest violinist in the world.

What the celebrated conductor meant was that Kremer played the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos with a gloriously big sound and a heart just as big. Kremer was a rapturous musician in the grand Russian manner, with a fantastic technique.

But Kremer has moved on. He is no longer "the world's greatest violinist." There is a plethora of young players with fantastic technique who can do everything -- and more than -- Kremer could when his sideburns were long and he wore bell-bottoms. But there is no one else today who can offer what Kremer can in Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

This a recording of daring originality that is utterly out of step with performance fashion yet completely of the moment.

Kremer's most striking characteristic has always been an old-fashioned devotion to his instrument allied with a restless curiosity. The restlessness has led him to question everything, including how and why he plays the violin and, even more striking, how and why he plays music.

Kremer's first recording of these three sonatas and three partitas -- scores that have come to stand for a personal journey into the soul of a composer and the soul of the violinist who attempts them -- was the product of a performer still hung up on being a great violinist. His sound was beautiful. He embodied all that the violin could do. He was the obvious successor to Heifetz and Oistrakh.

That was a quarter of a century ago. The early music movement was taking off. Bach's music, historically informed specialists insisted, was meant to sound lean, to move brusquely. Lose the vibrato, they said, exchange steel strings for gut and radically speed things up. Kremer, however, would have none of it. He stuck stubbornly, Romantically and romantically, to the modern violin and the Russian tradition of playing it.

Times have changed. The Baroque boys (and girls -- the best period-instrument recording is by Rachel Podger) have warmed up considerably. The modern violinists (such as the young Julia Fischer, who has also just recorded the sonatas and partitas, exquisitely but superficially) have cooled down. There is a happy meeting in the middle.

Meanwhile, Kremer has become ever more extreme. He's long past his need to show off his technique, he's gotten over his "Russian" fetishizing of a beautiful sound. His playing has turned raw, deeply probing, ferociously honest. The old Bach scores mean something to him only if they become new music.

If Kremer's Bach was bigger than life back then, I don't know what it's bigger than now -- the planet, perhaps? You sense that from the first second of this two-disc set. The violinist's attack on the heavy G-minor chord that opens the Sonata No. 1 is so monumentally strong it's like an aural jackhammer that has just broken ground. And once Kremer begins digging, he won't be satisfied until he reaches the center of the Earth.

He pretty much gets there, and the journey is dazzling, exhausting, exhilarating, powerfully moving -- condensing a huge amount of experience into a couple of hours. One obvious highlight is the famed Chaconne in D minor from the Second Partita, here a monument of recorded sound.

But for me, the most surprisingly revelatory movement is the opening Adagio of the Third Sonata. Kremer plays the repeated figures slowly, thickly, with extreme heaviness. He seems mesmerized by them, and the sound world is close to that of Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Part -- two composers he introduced to the West -- at their most mystical. I hear, too, in Kremer's lost-in-Bachian-translation playing of these figures, Philip Glass, another composer the violinist has championed.

Kremer is not uninterested in history -- he has published several provocative and informative books in Germany (none, alas, yet translated into English). But he sees great peril in allowing Bach to let us ignore the present. This recording may well become a classic, but that is not the point. It matters because it means so much right now.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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