The Concert of a Lifetime: Kremer’s Bach Marathon

Luciano Pavarotti has given New York many unforgettable musical gifts since his Met debut in La Bohème in 1968, but the one I may cherish the longest is the recent serial cancellation of his performance in Tosca , which had been planned to bring down the curtain on the Met’s season in a blaze of whatever autumnal glory the sexagenarian super tenor could muster. I got the call from the Met’s press office at 4:30 p.m., three and a half hours before curtain time: “Mr. Pavarotti is canceling because he has the flu. He will be replaced by a tenor named Francisco Casanova.” Resisting the temptation to ask whether the unheard-of replacement had the staying powers of his notorious 18th-century namesake, I said that since the occasion for my writing a valedictory piece about Pavarotti seemed to have evaporated, I’d make other plans. A call to Carnegie Hall secured me a place at a performance of Bach’s six works for solo violin by Gidon Kremer, at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel. To play the sonatas and partitas all at one go is the musical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in a single day without the benefit of fellow climbers, sherpas or overhead helicopters. And as things turned out, it was the concert experience of a lifetime.

For reasons that have to do with the predictable tastes of concert promoters and the stranglehold on the Baroque repertory by early-music purists, Bach is a composer whom the top violin virtuosos seem happy to leave alone. (Notable exceptions among younger rising stars are Christian Tetzlaff and Hilary Hahn.) But Mr. Kremer has made a career out of doing what nobody else does, and having made a recording of the unaccompanied Bach works 22 years ago on the Philips label, he decided to revisit and re-record them entirely on his own terms, in churches in Lockenhaus in Austria and in his native Riga. Until the present tour, he had never performed them continuously in one evening.

The “Six Solos for Violin Without Basso Continuo,” as they are entitled on the original manuscript, comprise three violin sonatas and three partitas (dance suites), which add up to 31 movements, or nearly three hours of music. Composed in 1720 as evening entertainment for the Cöthen Court of Prince Leopold, they are the pinnacle of the violin repertory. Shakespearean in their range of moods, they require the soloist not only to sing like a nightingale or whir like a hummingbird, but to execute multi-fingered chords with the force of an entire orchestra.

Beginning a little past 7 p.m. and ending well after 10 (there were two intermissions), Mr. Kremer stood dead center under St. Paul’s rotunda, on a platform covered with an Oriental carpet, and led a packed audience from one precipice to the next with an energy that was as fathomless as it was unfathomable. The chapel’s brick, neo-Romanesque interior is resonant to a fault, and Mr. Kremer made the most of it. I have never heard his Joseph Guarnarius del Gesu instrument, from 1730, glow with such richness and depth, especially in the noble, annunciatory opening of the first B-minor partita, which seemed to burn the surrounding air. And yet even in passages as fast as the same partita’s middle presto movement, which was taken at hair-raising speed, each of the nonstop 16th notes registered distinctly, like spilled pearls.

I have never been so astonished as I was by a violin’s capacity to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. In the allegro movement of the A-minor sonata, Mr. Kremer produced the “echoes” within various passages in such an eerie whisper that they seemed to be coming from somewhere out on Amsterdam Avenue. One had a constant sense of surprise in his choices: unexpected stresses and accents that abolished any feeling that we were listening to an elaborate digital exercise. Like a great jazz musician, Mr. Kremer found a bedrock rhythm for each work, giving each sonata and partita an underlying pulse, whether the tempo was lento or allegro.

Along with the more celebrated six suites for unaccompanied cello, these works show Bach at his most intimate. With the music arrayed in front of him on tall sheets, Mr. Kremer seemed oblivious of anyone but the Master himself. Having stunned the audience with an ecstatic reading of the familiar Chaconne in D-minor, which dwarfed the chapel with its depiction of the music’s vaulting architecture, he brought us face to face with Bach in the final two major-key works-Bach the good-humored paterfamilias, Bach the unclouded Lutheran and, most appealingly, Bach the hard-working, life-affirming peasant.

For some years now, whenever I’ve been asked to nominate the world’s greatest living performing musician, I’ve said “Gidon Kremer.” During the 30 years since he emerged from the Olympian tutelage of David Oistrakh at the Moscow State Conservatory to take first prize at every major international violin competition, the Latvian virtuoso, who is now 55, has extended the boundaries for classical musicians to a degree unmatched by any of his peers. Through his summer music school at Lockenhaus, his collaborations with the world’s leading conductors and soloists, and his more than 100 recordings with ensembles of every size and makeup, he has built a restless repertoire that extends from the bread-and-butter stuff by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms to wildly disparate newer works by Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Sofia Gubaidulina and Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla, whose plangent tango music has entered the world’s consciousness almost entirely because of Mr. Kremer’s enthusiasm for it.

Like Yo-Yo Ma and one or two others among musicians under 60, Mr. Kremer has the knack of making everything he touches seem, if not for the ages, seriously alive. Two weeks before his Columbia recital, I heard him with Kremerata Baltica, his hand-picked chamber orchestra of young Eastern Europeans hotshots, in a program at Carnegie that made throat-clutchers out of everything from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenirs of Florence to a suite for violin, piano and orchestra by a young, Juilliard-trained Russian composer and pianist named Lera Auerbach, whose volcanic powers of communication make her just the sort of talent whom Mr. Kremer likes to encourage.

Mr. Kremer’s world-embracing spirit-he travels 11 months of the year from his home base in Paris-is matched by a style of playing that has nothing to do with the silken imperiousness of such great forebears in the Russian violin school as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Nathan Milstein. He addresses Schubert and Schnittke on equal terms, with a muscular intensity that, at every turn, subverts conventional expectations of beauty with colors that can go from spookily ethereal to arrestingly ugly. Never ingratiating, his fiddling reflects his appearance: a bony, kinetic figure who plays with his knees as much as he does with his probing mind, his tireless bowing arm, and fingers that move so fast they don’t seem to be moving at all.

Several nights after the Bach marathon, having been informed by a skeptical-sounding Met representative that Mr. Pavarotti “appeared” as though he would show up for the gala, closing-night Tosca (he didn’t), I heard Mr. Kremer again. This time, he was at Carnegie Hall with two colleagues of long standing, the pianist Martha Argerich and the cellist Mischa Maisky. In a wide-ranging program of Haydn, Schumann and Shostakovich (a shattering reading of the wartime Second Piano Trio), Mr. Kremer stayed seated. His tone sounded more tightly coiled than it had in the smaller hall, and he was obliged to accommodate himself with great sensitivity to his partners, especially to the magisterially mercurial Ms. Argerich. But in every moment, one felt the special radiance of a man for whom music is the truest form of communication that we have yet devised.