Beyond just beautiful

Special to The Times

"TIME passes ... 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." So writes maverick Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, 58, in the booklet that accompanies his poetic new recording of J.S. Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

Widely regarded as his generation's most expressive and inventive violinist -- a fierce, contemporary-minded iconoclast who has brashly turned inward and upside down the syntax of Golden Age Romanticism -- Kremer first recorded Bach's solo works for the Philips label in 1980. He was then 33, still best-known in Europe, and had yet to make waves in mainstream America for his advocacy of new music.

Today, however, the self-effacing violinist writes his own ticket. He leads a chamber music festival in Lockenhaus, Austria. He runs his own handpicked touring ensemble, Kremerata Baltica. And in an age when performers wax ecstatic at the mere prospect of work, he decides whom he'd like to collaborate with, how and when.

Hence his latest record, which he financed and recorded himself and produced with trusted friends when he had touring breaks over the last few years -- this before refusing big commercial music-industry offers and choosing the eclectic Munich, Germany-based label ECM as his new home.

"There's so much wasted money today for statements that have very little behind them, and I didn't want to be dependent on a record company," Kremer said recently from the Latvian capital, Riga, his hometown and the site of a church where he recorded the Bach partitas. "The music industry has produced so many meaningless records, so many imitations of ideas that exist. Today a super name is of more value than a very sincere and modest musician with an original interpretation."

Which begs the question of why Kremer updated his still trend-setting 1980 Bach recording, an album that infused aggression, fire and grammatical innovation into scores that violinists had revered and reconsidered for more than 250 years.

"I felt I should re-record my psyche at this time," he said. "After so many years of hearing other people play these works, it just became an issue of leaving a last signature when I am as intense and clear about my intentions and feelings about this music as I have ever been."

Each solo Bach violin work -- whether it's one of the three four-movement sonatas built around long, involved fugues or one of the three partitas composed of French dance movements -- is a unique polyphonic world: a map to an emotional universe written for an instrument traditionally used to sing one soprano line. And inasmuch as Bach is the mirror in which musicians find the clearest images of themselves, many of the 20th century's great artists, from Glenn Gould to Yo-Yo Ma, have left more than one document of their Bach takes in an effort to upload new sonic scans of their spirits into the annals of recorded sound.

"Playing Bach, you are naked," Kremer said. "You can't hide behind it like you can some Romantic or intellectual compositions. With this record, I just wanted to do honest service to this cathedral -- these six works or Himalayas of music that can't be compared to anything else. Especially now that I have reached this point in my life."

Kremer's new recording builds upon his first statement, adding a layer of maturity and patience that a young musician might lack. It also features the violinist in some serious, though not unexpected, musical risk-taking: accenting new offbeats, reinterpreting the composer's supposed phrasings and using his bow in angular, modern ways that most Bach violinists would probably never consider.

"To play in a traditional, conservatory-style way is just to learn how to breathe," he said. "Now, on this record, I am breathing. Of course I hope that I didn't interfere with Bach's logic, multilayered lines or spiritual message by taking liberties. I am not trying to be eccentric but to be honest and play in such a way as he might be satisfied if he were living today."

At some points in the recording, for instance, Kremer's technique may sound rougher or more jagged than a music school graduate's. Still, he -- like many fans tired of artists who toe the this-is-sophisticatedmusic-that-must-be-played-gorgeously line -- has no misgivings about a contrary approach.

"One of my driving forces is to avoid being a showoff or a violinist who only produces so-called 'beautiful' sounds," he said. "Of course I tried to be as perfect as I could with this project. But the goal was not to overindulge in my own playing but, as I wrote in my liner notes, to play filled with personal feeling as a 'document from out of our fragile, noisy, and sometimes overly brilliant time.' "

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