Alex Ross recently wrote about Gidon Kremer in the New Yorker, where he agreed with Herbert von Karajan that Kremer is the greatest living violinist.
Very strong words indeed. But from Kremer's recent performance at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, I'm certain Mr. Ross felt justified in going out on that limb.
Many violinists would take exception to this belief. They complain of Kremer's penchant for performing concertos with the music in front of him, rather than from memory, as most violin soloists do. Some violinists have told me that Kremer doesn't always play in tune.
To their complaints I say so what. Listen to his music. Listen to the poetry that comes from this man.
During my residency with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Kremer was a guest, performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. (Yes, he used music.) This was a piece I thought I knew, a piece I had performed before and several times since. But no performance I have heard or conducted can compare to what Kremer did with this masterwork.
The Sibelius concerto is hard, really hard. Some would say that Beethoven's is the hardest. (Joseph Silverstein told me that if you can get past those opening octaves, you have a fighting chance.) Others might say Brahms's, or Tchaikovsky's. But Sibelius's violin concerto is difficult for the orchestra, too.
On this occasion, Kremer played in a way that separates him from the rest. (Even Nikolaj Znaider -- who gave a brilliant performance of the concerto with Colin Davis and the LSO earlier in the White Nights Festival -- must take a back seat to Mr. Kremer.)
There was nothing technically flashy about Kremer's performance, and there was even the occasional note that was not pitch-perfect. But in the controlled frenzy of his rendering of the finale, the soulful quality to the second movement, and an earth-shattering moment in the first movement, Kremer stands apart.
It happened not in the cadenza, but after it. For those of you who may not know, a cadenza is a place where a soloist can shine on his own, independent of the orchestra. Sometimes a cadenza is brief (Bach, Mozart), sometimes long (in Shostakovich, it can be an entire movement). Sibelius was himself a violinist, a frustrated one at that; given a choice, he would much rather have been a violin virtuoso than a great composer.
This frustration is evident in the cadenza, but I had no idea of it until I heard Kremer play it. And then, when he came to the end of the cadenza, there was something Kremer did (or didn't do . . . I'm not quite sure which) which made me break down.
At the end of a cadenza, a violinist is often asked to exalt, to be heroic, and the close of Sibelius's cadenza confirms this. In any other concerto, the orchestra would re-enter with great excitement and confirmation. In Sibelius, there is none of this, as the bassoons murmur along, stuck in the mud. (They don't even have the courtesy to wait for the violin to finish before they come in.) The rest of the orchestra straggles back in, one by one, and the violin soloist follows suit, almost catatonic. Think of a child, trying to please a parent to no avail, and you get the idea.
In short, the orchestra ignores the soloist, just as late 19th century European orchestral world ignored Sibelius the violinist. In an instant, Gidon Kremer brought all of this to bear, and I soon realized that I had stopped breathing. Backstage afterwards, I fumbled, trying to find the right words to compliment Mr. Kremer. It was useless. But he knew. For him, this kind of tacit praise is probably a regular occurence.
Oh, and one other thing -- thinking that I'd like to communicate with him at some point (when the words would hopefully come to me), I asked for a way to contact him. He not only gave me his home address, he gave me his phone number.
Among the great violinists living today, whom do you know would do such a thing?