Gidon Kremer 60th-Birthday Concert

Sonata in A for Violin and Piano, D574
Sonata for Solo Violin
Sonatina in G minor for Violin and Piano, D408
3 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op.14e
Introduction and Variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’, D802

Gidon Kremer (violin) & Oleg Maisenberg (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 22 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Few violinists have done more for contemporary classical music than has Gidon Kremer. And yet, alongside a wealth of commissions from composers such as Schnittke, John Adams and Arvo Pärt, Kremer retains a love of Romantic violin music that sits just on the edge of the core repertoire.

Both facets of this musical personality were aired to a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in celebration of the violinist’s 60th-birthday, along with a mesmerising performance of Bartók’s solo sonata. Kremer leant almost into the music stand for much of the piece, a visual demonstration of his total involvement in the music. The range of colours he was able to secure from his 1641 Amati violin was astonishing, the softly whistled harmonics of the nocturnal slow movement completely at odds with the aggressive down-bow strokes with which the ‘Fuga’ began.

Kremer’s aptitude with Bartók’s dance rhythms came to the fore in the folksy outer movements, with the tempo liberally but tastefully pulled around. The drama of the piece was further exploited by his use of silence, every rest amplifying the collective tension in the hall.

Bartók’s ‘descendant’ Kurtág offered the most modern music, his three pieces an arranged extract from the 1979 work for violin and tenor lyre, Herdecker Eurythmics. Typically concentrated and intense, the second piece was memorable for the pinpricks of birdsong supplied as a commentary by Kremer, while the third showed Maisenberg’s admirable control of the pppp dynamic required. These were the briefest of studies, realised with great intensity.

Kremer’s love of Schubert dominated the rest of the recital, a familiarity that stretches back with Maisenberg some fifteen years, when the two began Kremer’s project of recording Schubert’s complete violin works for Deutsche Grammophon. Those versions still lead the field, and here the two musicians made an easy re-acquaintance. It seems unfair of the Viennese publisher Diabelli to have labelled Schubert’s three sonatinas as such, for each is a substantial work and a not inconsiderable challenge, with violin and piano set on equal footing.

Schubert was just 19 when he completed D408, and Kremer’s enjoyment of the fresh melodic material was obvious. Maisenberg’s introduction to the finale was a wonderful moment of control, while the two showed great poise in the radiant slow movement and sharply pointed Minuet.

The Sonata proper began the concert – the advertised order of the programme stood completely on its head (and it had been changed anyway) – with vigorous work from Kremer making a powerful scherzo and finale, with a daintier Andante charming in between.

Not for this violinist a conventional virtuoso finish – yet – for in taking on the Variations Kremer was subjecting Maisenberg to his fair share of difficulty also. Both excelled in a theme that contrasted a relatively sombre minor-key episode with a more upward looking major-key response, and Kremer’s warm tone elevated the melodic material well above the conventional.

In a typically modest move both violinist and pianist bowed towards each other in acknowledgement after two encores – a lyrical, tender account of a Richard Strauss piece arranged by Kreisler, then the latter’s Caprice Viennois, Kremer allowing himself outrageous (and hugely enjoyable!) excesses of rubato. Happy birthday!

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