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Kremer & Cole on Duke Artists: Eclectic and Rare 20th-Century French Fare

by William Thomas Walker

There was certainly nothing remotely dull or routine about the unique recital by the noted iconoclastic violinist Gidon Kremer and rising virtuoso pianist Naida Cole as part of the Duke Artists Series in Page Auditorium February 28. Their choice and imaginative selections would have been unusual even for a faculty recital, much less one on a long-established series that has had too many of the same core works programmed. Instead of a standard cafeteria selection from the tried and true Austro-German repertory, perhaps spiced with some Russian music, they essayed mostly unfamiliar 20th-century works of French or at least Franco-Belgian origin.

I believe this was the first regional appearance by Kremer, famous for his advocacy of such composers as Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Messiaen, Schnittke, etc. I have none of his standard repertory CDs - only his second Schumann Violin Concerto and Gubaidulina's "Offertorium" recordings. I was quite unprepared for the fine, warm sound quality he so subtly coaxed from his Guanerius del Gesù "ex-David" violin, dated 1730. Cole had enthralled me with her refined playing of Fauré, Chabrier, and Satie, as well as her ensemble skills, as part of the 25th Anniversary Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series in the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, S.C. (reviewed by CVNC ).

Kremer and Cole alternated a sequence of solo works with four duets. I doubt that Page Auditorium has ever had so much refined " pp " playing from either instrument as was heard Friday night.

The great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe composed six solo Violin Sonatas, Op. 27, published in 1923. Each was dedicated to one of his friends - all of whom were celebrated violinists. Number 5, which Kremer played, was dedicated to Ysaÿe's star pupil and the second violinist in his string quartet, Mathieu Crickboom. Program annotator P.B. Thompson writes that "The two movements are said to contrast the twin poles of (his) personality." It begins slowly with long bowed notes and fancy left-hand pizzicatos. Percussive passages in the first movement anticipate Bartók. The second movement features a rustic country dance. Intonation was impeccable and Kremer's dynamic and expressive ranges were impressive, not least for the quieter passages throughout the evening.

Cole's extraordinary palate of colors was on constant display throughout her wide-ranging solo pieces. In the first half, she played "Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus" and "Noël," Nos. 15 and 13, respectively, from Messiaen's monumental Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus . No. 15 opened with a gentle variation on Messiaen's "God-theme," played " pp " and, after pulsing repetitions, it built to an ecstatic section with treble trills. No. 13 featured bell-like sounds evoking a timeless Christmas. The "Gymnopedie No. 1," by Erik Satie, deceptively simple in its economy of means, was perfect. No cell-phone cry spoiled the magic of the mood as happened during one Charleston performance. Kudos for those presenters who, as at Duke, precede their concerts with verbal urges to silence all pagers, watches and cell phones!

Both artists joined for two light works. Ysaÿe's "Rêve d'enfant," Op. 14, is a soft and gentle lullaby, barely overheard. Satie's penchant for whimsical titles was on display in the witty "Choses vues à droite et à gauche, sans lunettes" ("Things seen to the right and left, without spectacles"), which starts with interesting violin harmonics and leads to an unusual chorale, played with the strings muted. The equally satirical fugue began with the line in Cole's right hand, followed by the violin, while the pianist's left hand played the third voice. Kremer has an easy mastery of the full bag of the work's virtuoso tricks - high notes requiring extreme precision, rapid pizzicatos, and trills, as well as a brief showy cadenza for the third movement that satirizes Romanticism's excesses. The more serious "Thème et variations" by Messiaen that opened the program has the composer's wide range of colors for both instruments, an almost static pulsing exaltation and elements that were enhanced in his later Vignt Regards. The formal concert ended with a massive (and, I would have thought, most unlikely) transcription of César Franck's Symphony in D Minor, arranged for violin and piano by Ernest Alder. The piece can often sound like an organ work when played by an orchestra, but there was no chance of that in this extreme "lite" version! Especially in the first two movements, it was interesting to hear familiar themes parsed out between the violin and piano only, but it was too great a task to encompass the final movement. I am grateful for the rare chance to hear this transcription - once. Several friends had planned to avoid this concert, thinking that the Franck would be the over-programmed and rarely-successfully-brought-off Violin Sonata. Based on their mastery of instrumental color and style, Kremer and Cole might be among the very few who could do this transcription justice.

After warm audience response, particularly from the connoisseurs and players, Messiaen's "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus," the moving conclusion to his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps , was the evening's encore.

The fine program notes by Paul B. Thompson were most helpful as a guide through so much unfamiliar material.

The Sunday New York Times advertised a repeat of this same Kremer and Cole program in Carnegie Hall March 3.


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