This preview story has an unexpected update at the end. But it’s important to begin at the beginning.
Hosting an unusual event, McCarter Theater presents violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Krystian Zimerman in a recital devoted to all three of Brahms sonatas for violin and piano on Monday, October 30. The program will reach only three additional locations in North America: New York City, Boston, and Quebec City.
Any red-blooded journalist would want to interview both of these artists. Pianist Zimerman, 45, was born in Poland, and began his piano studies with his father. He won the Chopin competition at age 14. For more than half his life a Swiss resident, this year he is on sabbatical from the Conservatory in Basel, Switzerland, where he is a faculty member. He has the habit of working on many pieces at one time, juggling compositions in various stages of concert-readiness. Sometimes he spends a decade preparing a piece. Zimerman travels with his own piano, a Hamburg Steinway concert grand, for which he constantly devises structural modifications. He has made two dozen recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.
Kremer, 59, was born in Riga, Latvia. He began studying violin with his father and grandfather.
In 1965, when he was 18 and Latvia was still under Soviet domination, he became one of David Oistrakh’s few apprentices at the Moscow Conservatory. Emigrating to the West, he established an international music festival devoted to new music in Lockenhaus, Austria in 1981. The festival makes real Kremer’s belief that music can overcome all cultural and linguistic barriers.
In 1996 Kremer founded Kremerata Baltica, a chamber orchestra whose members are musicians from the Baltic countries. Serving as artistic director and soloist of the ensemble, in odd moments Kremer takes his place in its violin section. In 2002 he founded “Les Museiques-Basel,” a chamber music festival that gives concerts in Basel’s museums. He has made more than 100 recordings. His most recent release is a two-disc set of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin.
Kremer has written three books in German that touch on his esthetic ideas. They have not yet been translated into English: “Obertoene,” (“Overtones” or “Harmonics”), a collection of short pieces; “Kindheitssplitter” (“Childhood Fragments”), an autobiography, which has been translated into Russian, Latvian, French, and Japanese; and “Oase Lockenhaus” (“Oasis Lockenhaus”), which sums up 15 years at his Austrian festival.
World-class artists, violinist Kremer and pianist Zimerman have a world-class aversion to journalists. No combination of charm and credentials that I could muster was able to convince either of them to talk to me or to answer questions by E-mail. Their refusal amplified the doubts that occasionally attack me as I am about to intrude on an active performer. However brash I come across, I nevertheless agonize about occupying the time of busy musicians, asking questions that they may have already answered hundreds of times.
I hope that I worry too much. Most of the time, my interviews are happy encounters. Frequently, the interviewee thanks me for the conversation. From time to time I get fan mail commenting on my accuracy. Kremer and Zimerman could not have known all this when they refused to talk to me.
Kremer accounts for his reluctance to be interviewed by the press in an essay entitled “Interviews” in “Obertoene.” (Rather than making a literal translation, I have edited Kremer’s German text in the way I edit notes taken during an interview.)
In summary he says, “Interviews are seldom a joy.” Referring to what he considered a tactless inquiry, he asks rhetorically, “How do you answer the question, ‘What inscription would you like on your grave stone?’ He revealed his answer not in the book, but in a 2005 interview with Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe. “I was once asked what I wanted written on my gravestone,” he told Edgers. “At the time, I said, ‘He lived, he played, he died.’” Clearly, Kremer handled the intrusive question adeptly by modestly encapsulating his life. However, he can recount more than one experience with journalists where he could do nothing.
The German weekly magazine “Der Spiegel” once called on him to gather material about his emigrating to the West. “I told the journalist everything I could think of about the experience, talking without interruption while he listened dumbfounded. He got about 70 minutes of text on his recording machine. The next day he telephoned to consult with me; my monologue lacked a conversational character. We decided to divide up my remarks and fill them out with questions in order to simulate a conversation. The revised material was sent to me. I dedicated five or six hours to correcting my ‘answers.’ My journalist partner was satisfied. I spent another hour or two in order to modify some details that I thought were important. The experienced journalist was highly pleased with the form and content of the article. After weeks of waiting the journalist informed me that he was very sorry, but it wouldn’t appear. The grounds: ‘It is too professional, has too many references to specific pieces, and is too personal. Therefore it is not suitable for Der Spiegel’s readers.’ Again a fiasco.” Wryly, Kremer says, “At least, what doesn’t appear can’t be misinterpreted.”
The performing artist, Kremer believes, follows his calling through the sounds he makes; they supply sufficient information; there is no need to publicize private matters. “The creative is like a photographic film,” he says. “Daylight can disturb it.”
A sampling of Kremer’s recordings confirms the value of listening to him play. The CD with the Bach works for unaccompanied violin makes the point tellingly. Kremer approaches music with the utmost care. Every note is in its place, and every note is going somewhere. The listener can almost touch the shape of his phrases. His gradations of volume are infinite. His brisk tempos sound slow; clarity keeps the music comprehensible. He is a master of fearless rubato (rhythmic flexibility). The variety of his sound is enormous. The experience is complete without knowing anything about the performer.
Still, Kremer expands a listener’s experience by his liner notes. He classifies the dictum “You must sing on the violin” as “a familiar misconception.” He expresses his awe of music’s richness and his belief that there can be no definitive interpretation of great music. “The music holds within itself so many interpretations that neither a narrator nor a performer is really a match for this variety. We can only act as guides into the kingdom of the ‘infinite.’”
The integrity of the composer’s score is his starting point. “Time passes,” Kremer says “while the black dots and strokes caught by ink and paper stay forever. Ages before our Internet era these little symbols carried gigabytes of information, but unlike what we can download today, they were always full of spiritual value. We question them and they continue to tell us something, while at the same time questioning us all.”
Here comes the surprise: As the deadline hovered, I was on the verge of wrapping up my piece with a paragraph asserting that the silent Zimerman shared Kremer’s modest outlook and intense devotion to music, and that the two artists would present a unique togetherness at McCarter. And then I learned that Zimerman would talk to me by telephone from New York.
Zimerman turned out to be warm and breezy, thoughtful and analytical, meticulously explaining his ideas. He knows that different readerships have different levels of sophistication, and he extended himself to craft his remarks for maximal contact with the readers of US 1. The interview turned out to be collaboration.
Yes, he’s leery of journalists. Distressed at being frequently misquoted, for many years he gave no interviews. Now he talks to selected journalists. He would have been happier if I had recorded our conversation, rather than taking notes. “It’s better to record and have proof,” he says.
Zimerman knows Barbara Johnson, a benefactor of the Chopin Competition, which he won in 1975 at age 14, and has been a guest at Jasna Polana, her former Princeton home. “She gave me a scholarship to Juilliard which I never used,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ Several years later, I got an invitation to give a master class at Juilliard, and I thought, ‘Now it’s too late to use the scholarship.’”
He no longer travels with his own Hamburg Steinway in the United States, but depends instead on the “actions” he has constructed. (“Action” is the technical term for the removable combination of keyboard and hammers that produce the piano’s sound by striking its strings.) Zimerman builds the “action” from stock parts in order to have the mechanical means for transmitting the varying esthetics of different composers. Zimerman has the removable “action” — he calls it a “keyboard” — transferred to the case of a piano that he likes. Two people, who travel with him, keep his instrument ready for concerts.
“Since September 11, it’s virtually impossible to travel with my piano,” he says. “Last April I lost a keyboard during an airport security check. The sensors detected the same chemicals used in bombs, the red light went on, and airport personnel tore open the box and broke the keyboard in three pieces. I travel with the entire instrument in Europe and Asia. In America it seems that the terrorists won.”
For the McCarter program Zimerman uses a favorite New York Steinway “D.” He and Kremer first performed the Brahms cycle in the 1970s. Programming it again is a project they have had to defer for 25 years, Zimerman explains.
Brahms Bonanza, Monday, October 30, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Gidon Kremer, violin; Krystian Zimerman, piano. $45 to $55. 609-258-2787.