• U.S.

Music: Gidon Kremer: Gaunt and Gripping

3 minute read

“My fate was decided before I came to this globe,” says Soviet Violinist Gidon Kremer. So it seems. His mother and father were both professional violinists. Gidon’s maternal grandfather handed down his fiddle when the boy was still in his teens; it just happened to be an 18th century Guadagnini. At the Moscow State Conservatory, Kremer caught the eye and ear of the late David Oistrakh and worked with him for eight years. In 1970 at the age of 23, Kremer won Moscow’s esteemed Tchaikovsky Competition. Last week he arrived in the U.S. for the first time, and once again he was a winner. The occasion: a brilliant New York debut at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Kremer appears headed for international renown. His technique is complete, his tone thinner than some but capable of glorious sunbursts of sound. He is no “Watch me go” virtuoso. His debut program, for example, was devoid of the crowd-arousing Romantic potboilers favored by so many of his Soviet predecessors. Instead, he and his piano accompanist, Xenia Knorre, played Beethoven’s dreamy, introspective Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96. And wonderfully. They also offered an American work not many U.S. artists take the trouble to learn: Charles Ives’ frolicsome Sonata No. 4 (Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting).

Kremer even dabbled in electronics. This came in a shortish Preludio by the contemporary Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke. The music had an eerie, almost macabre aura, heighte at one point when Kremer played against a passage that he had taped earlier and that was being beamed into the hall over loudspeakers. But Kremer’s interpretations of two unaccompanied works by Bach—the Partita No. 1 in B-minor and, as an encore, the fiendishly difficult Chaconne—were the biggest surprise. This was Bach done in a robust, free style that damned scholarship and gave the music continuous life and excitement.

The enthusiastic audience, which included a large proportion of emigre Russians, students and critics, fastened on Kremer’s gaunt, almost spectral appearance as well as his spellbinding playing. Whatever a Soviet fiddler should look like (Oistrakh was round and beefy, his rival Leonid Kogan short and slender), Kremer does not fit the image. His is more that of an intellectual rock-‘n’-roll star badly in need of a square meal. He weighs but 125 lbs. and consequently looks a foot taller than his 5 ft. 9 in. He wears his brown hair long and his sideburns an inch below the ears. His agile fingers could well be the longest and skinniest since the days of Nicolo Paganini.

In spite of the prospect that he might be blown away by the first gust of applause, Kremer is a man on a serious musical mission. As he put it, “When I am onstage I want the people not just to like what I am doing, but to need what I am doing.” The need for Gidon Kremer should start building now.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com