A Rare Performance from Violinist Gidon Kremer

Photo by Sasha Gusov/ECM Records

Violinist Gidon Kremer is making a rare U.S. appearance this weekend; he joins the Seattle Symphony for Schumann’s violin concerto, another rarity. SSO music director Ludovic Morlot paired it with an early Mendelssohn Sinfonia that itself is infrequently heard, and Mendelssohn’s well-known and deservedly popular Symphony No, 4, the “Italian.” I wish I could say that the Schumann was a success Thursday night. It wasn’t.

The concerto itself has had an unusual history. Composed in 1853 when Schumann was increasingly mentally ill (he attempted suicide not long after, and was confined to a mental asylum the following year until his death in 1856), his widow, Clara, composer and friend Brahms, and violinist Josef Joachim together decided to suppress it as not up to Schumann’s usual standards. It wasn’t performed until the 1930s.

Kremer, a legendary violinist I heard in a spectacular performance of a Schnittke concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1984, added the Schumann to his repertoire several decades ago and has championed it since, considering it, he says, “one of the great concertos ever written for violin.”

That being so, he did not present a convincing case for it on Thursday. Playing from the score (Why? Surely he knows it by heart after 40 years) he seemed unable to create a close rapport with conductor Morlot, so that Kremer and the reduced orchestra were often not quite in sync and the orchestral sound frequently overwhelmed Kremer. This is highly unusual for Morlot who is always attentive to the soloist and a master at keeping orchestra and soloist exactly together and in balance.

Kremer’s playing was deeply introspective. He kept it kept on the soft side throughout, frequently extremely soft; thus there were big contrasts between when the orchestra was playing alone and when he was playing as well. Schumann wrote rich and colorful orchestral sections, reducing it to a sparer sound to accompany the violin, but Kremer’s playing was so soft that, even so, it was often hard to hear his violin line in any detail, and his sound was more or less drowned out each time the winds came in.

The beginning of the second movement has a long passage led by solo cello playing a smooth and eloquent melody that seems to be ahead of the beat but which is part of the score. It feels as though cello, orchestra and soloist are not quite together, but listening to several different performances of this concerto it sounds like that every time. This didn’t help the feeling that this particular performance was not very successful. The audience seemed to feel the same, only slowly getting to its feet, and without its usual enthusiasm. Kremer gave a short encore, of an arrangement of Weinberg’s Prelude No. 5, originally for solo cello.

Listening to performances of this concerto on YouTube gives a much better feeling for what a beautiful work this can be, with a deeply emotional, often delicate solo role. There is one by Kremer from four years ago which is far more appealing than this was.

However, the Mendelssohn performances by the orchestra made this concert well worth attending. The short Sinfonia No 10, composed by Mendelssohn aged 14, leaves the listener in awe of the composer’s musical mind at that age. Far from simple, it starts serene and stately, but progresses to portent and drama, full of unexpected twists.

The concert finale, his “Italian” Symphony, composed in his early 20s, is full of the experiences of a young man loving his trip to Italy. It was exuberant, exciting, happy; in one part crisp and agile, in another flowing, warm, often joyous, with gorgeous melodies one after another, always descriptive. The performance was a pleasure from start to finish, the orchestra on its toes, every detail of the musical tapestry audible.

The program is repeated Saturday night, Oct. 14.