Gidon Kremer – Finding Your Own Voice
A documentary by Paul Smaczny
Mieczysław WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Twenty-four preludes for cello solo (1968) (arr. violin Gidon Kremer) [47:00]
Gidon Kremer (violin)
rec. live Gogol Centre, Moscow, November 2017
ACCENTUS MUSIC DVD ACC20414 [98 mins]
Even the most striking and vivid events can fade from the memory with time. Was it at that very concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London more than thirty years ago, the only time I have heard Gidon Kremer live, that Jacqueline du Pré was in the audience? She arrived just before the start, in her wheelchair, with Daniel Barenboim who settled her in at the front of the stalls. I seem to remember wondering if it were curiosity or admiration for the Estonian violinist that brought them there. Kremer played Steve Reich’s Violin Phase. He was alone on stage with only a recording of himself playing the same music for company. His job was gradually to get out of phase with the recording. (The score carries two closely typed pages explaining how to prepare the tape and how the work should be performed.) I was astounded by Kremer’s extraordinary virtuosity and individual sound, but what struck me most was his physical engagement with the music. It seemed to me that every bone, muscle and sinew was mobilised to serve the composer’s intentions. I have been a Gidon Kremer fan ever since, and many of the aspects of this exceptional musician I have come to admire shine through in this film about him by Paul Smaczny.
The film opens with a sequence showing Kremer receiving the 2016 German order of merit (Pour le Mérite) in arts and sciences. We then see him at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, a remarkable building in the Bois de Boulogne. A rehearsal of Arvo Pärt’s Greater Antiphons is taking place, with a young conductor in charge of the violinist’s ensemble, Kremerata Baltica. Pärt is there too, a benevolent presence, impassive, choosing his words carefully. Kremer is concerned with passing on his knowledge and experience. ‘You have to give what you know, otherwise it dies,’ he says. This is why he created the ensemble, to transmit what he had learned to young musicians of the Baltic states.
We see Kremer with his daughter, Gigi, who was born in Paris, before he travels to Riga where he himself was born. A touching scene places him below the window of his childhood apartment, recalling the strict regime imposed on him by his musician father. ‘You can always do better’, was his father’s message. Another important lesson was learned from David Oistrakh, his teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire. Wandering through the corridors of that remarkable institution, Kremer recalls Oistrakh’s words: ‘I would never do what you are doing, but you are right and you have to go your own way.’
Kremer has always gone his own way. Music, he tells us, has an ethical function in addition to its aesthetic one. He goes to the Gogol Centre in implicit support of its Director, Kyrill Serebrennikov, under house arrest accused of improper use of funds. The film does not seek to make political points, but Kremer is careful to tell us that he left Russia in search of freedom. It was not possible to play the music he wanted to play, he tells us, and that for ideological reasons. Today, the same problem presents itself, but because of financial constraints. Concert hall seats must be filled.
His championship of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, and in particular his transcription for violin of Weinberg’s Cello Preludes, he describes as a ‘statement’. Weinberg was born in Warsaw and lost most of his family in World War II concentration camps. He himself fled to the Soviet Union in 1939, but his life there was far from easy, with periods of arrest, imprisonment and neglect. Kremer is shown working in a collaboration with Vladimir Jurowski, first in a concerto by Victor Kissine and then in one by Weinberg. A short but moving cameo is included when, after the concert, Kremer is greeted and congratulated by Weinberg’s widow.
Kremer’s commitment to music outside the virtuoso violinist’s staple diet is demonstrated near the end of the film where, in Tokyo, he and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, with conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, perform Philip Glass’s Double Concerto. This performance is undercut by touching post-concert images of the violinist and the cellist, and then with his two daughters. In a further extract from the earlier award ceremony, he says ‘Music does not tolerate hatred, but awakens energy and hope. That’s the best thing about it. That is the thing which makes us believe that we and the world will not become victims of madness and madmen.’
The second part of the DVD is a film of a concert given in the Gogol Centre, Moscow, in November 2017 where Kremer played the Weinberg Preludes. The violinist is alone on stage, alongside a large screen onto which are intermittently projected photographs by Antanas Sutkus, a Lithuanian photographer born in 1939. A Google search reveals many of this photographer’s works, of which a selection is brought onto the screen for us to examine in more detail; others can be found in the excellent accompanying booklet. Sutkus’s images document the life of ordinary people in Lithuania around the time of the composition of Weinberg’s Preludes. The images are for the most part austere, but life, levity and humour are also to be found there, and as such they make a satisfying visual counterpoint to the music. They are also very evocative, and no doubt even more for the audience in the hall.
I am not familiar with the original work for cello so can make no comment on Kremer’s adaptation. What can be said is that there is enormous variety from one piece to another, with the proviso that the prevailing mood is sombre, and that fifty minutes of solo violin music will not be to everybody’s taste. Shostakovich was a friend and colleague, and the two musicians admired each other greatly. Prelude 6 has a rhythmic echo of Shostakovich’s Eleventh String Quartet which may or may not be a deliberate act of homage. The reference to the opening of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto that we hear at the end of Prelude 20, however, is unmistakeable, and Prelude 21 is no less than a meditation on that masterpiece’s first movement.
In recent years a concerted effort on the part of several eminent contemporary musicians, notably Kremer, has at last succeeded in drawing attention to this composer’s music. The DG recording of his symphonies 2 and 21, featuring Kremer and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, is a fine example of this. If you respond positively to the music on those two superb discs you will probably appreciate Kremer’s performance here too. In any event, the sight of this musician, a man of immense integrity and strength of personality, alone on stage once again, and still seeking, at 70, to communicate truth, justice and beauty through music, brought back vivid memories for this particular viewer.