Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica performing in Berlin

Music’s moral conscience

The violinist Gidon Kremer stands brilliantly apart from the rest of the music world

On Music

This article is taken from the April 2022 issues of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The first time I met Gidon Kremer, for an interview in a London hotel lobby, he broke in after a few minutes to say: “My wife has left me for Barenboim. Do you know anyone for me?”

This was so far outside the normal encounter, where an artist plugs a project and the journalist creates an angle, that I have no further recollection of the interview and probably made a complete hash of it. What endures is an impression of raw honesty and searing pain, twin drivers I came to recognise as the keys to Kremer’s impressive courage and idealism.

Gidon Kremer turned 75 last month without much fuss. Though he is one of the world’s most admired violinists and ensemble leaders, there was barely a birthday card from the music business, which he accuses of corruption. Nor was there much waving of flags, probably because he is a nowhere man. Latvian by birth, half-Jewish and half-German, he mostly lives out of a suitcase or, as he puts it, out of a mobile bookcase in his head. 

“Music will not save the world, but it can smooth the pain of all those who suffer”

Quarter of a century ago he created the Kremerata Baltica with regional musicians in need of income and identity. The Kremerata plays a different menu from anyone else, much of it by local composers. It stands outside regular concert routines, and Kremer stands still further out. When you see him with the players he is always a foot apart, wearing his isolation as a badge of pride, keeping his head above the dirty compromises of an artist’s life. 

When Putin invaded Ukraine, Kremer sent me a triple concerto he had commissioned titled This too shall pass. On the whole, he shuns such cliches. “Insane people may in fact be very smart,” he tells me now in a measured message. “It is tragic if power is used for murder. These days it relates to certain politicians.”

What can music do? I ask. “Music will not save the world,” he replies, “but it can smooth the pain of all those who suffer.” His limited, achievable aim draws the line between the thoughtful Kremer and all the other musical megaphones who speak in war-and-peace soundbites. 

Kremer does not speak readily of his suffering. His father was an orchestral violinist in Riga. In a recent Deutsche Welle film, Kremer said: “I am — so to speak — my father’s second life. He suffered so much in the war. Thirty-five of his relatives, including his wife and his one-and-a-half year-old daughter, were murdered in the Riga ghetto.” Kremer is shadowed by a sister he never knew. His father’s second wife was German. “I feel obligated to pass on what I have experienced,” he says. 

As a teenager he studied in Moscow with the illustrious David Oistrakh, but was not let out abroad. Rather than appeasing the apparatchiks, he befriended the dissident composer Alfred Schnittke and performed his music at every opportunity. He regrets missing out on another marginal Moscow composer, the Polish exile Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Once he could leave Russia, he connected with the happy-weepy tangos of the Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla. 

Although he could have milked summer festivals from Salzburg to Lucerne, Kremer ran a modest “anti-festival” with friends for 30 years in the Austrian village of Lockenhaus. Lured briefly by a bank-funded Swiss festival at Verbier he soon excoriated the event for fuelling a corrosive star system. 

His denunciation resonates powerfully a decade later: “The question to myself remains: what am I personally doing on this summit of ‘names’ and both old and new celebrities? Having all my life served music and composers, a repertoire which is established as ‘classic’ and one which, for decades I had to fight for to be heard, I now feel that I need to make a choice. I simply do not want any more to be part of ‘parties for the sake of parties’. To be one of a group of so many splendid artists is not something that I want to justify or confirm.”

His revulsion at stardom is founded on a loathing of elites, on stage and in the audience, and a disgust at the atmosphere they foster. “I simply do not want to breathe the air, which is filled by sensationalism and distorted values,” he said. He has never returned to Verbier (nor have I). The festival’s latest music director was Valery Gergiev, Putin’s conductor. That’s all you need to know.

He loves music, day and night, heart and soul

Kremer has spoken out against all of Putin’s wars. “I fail to understand some of my colleagues, who (for their own convenience) support the state of affairs and its political intimidation,” he said of Crimea in 2014. He has appealed often for the release of Putin’s political prisoners. When in Canada, he takes time out to perform for prisoners in British Columbia. At 75, his playing has lost none of its unique character — technically immaculate, slightly astringent, never ingratiating, always gripping.

These fragments from an unwieldy life may help indicate why Gidon Kremer stands alone. He does not want to be an outlier and he has long since made his peace with Elena Bashkirova who left him to marry Barenboim. But his binary sense of right and wrong forces him into strong judgements that he cannot resist and which most others fear to share. He does it, he says, for the sake of music. 

“There is a difference,” he told me recently, “between ‘making music’ and ‘being music’ — just as there is between making love and loving.” 

He loves music, day and night, heart and soul. What sets him apart from the international star trek is simply this: Gidon Kremer is, and always has been, the moral conscience of the musical nation.

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