Gidon Kremer/ Martha Argerich: The Berlin Recital

Steven Winn on July 6, 2009
In this striking double-disc of contrasting moods and temperaments, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Martha Argerich take up a program of Schumann and Bartók sonatas. From Kremer’s leisurely, sun-dappled pizzicato statement of the third-movement theme in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 to the whirling, multilayered conversation he and Argerich have in the opening Allegro of Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2, the performances by these two superb musicians brim over with distinctly voiced character.

Recorded live in 2006, this Berlin Concert opens with Schumann’s unjustly neglected second sonata. Kremer and Argerich put their stamp on the piece right away, the noble exclamation of the opening chords leading to a rhythmically charged account of the long first movement, pulled along by a lyrical undertow. The tiny musical germ of the second movement takes on an obsessive fascination in an eventful four and a half minutes. Argerich flashes her zero-to-60 power-thrust in the finale, marked Bewegt, with Kremer matching her muscle in the movement’s gripping development section and her delicacy in its shimmering sweetness near the end.

Listen to the Music

Bela Bartók Violin Sonata No. 1 from
the film version of the event, Memory
of a Concert, broadcast by ARTE
on May 3, 2009
Kremer is on his own in Bartók’s angular and predominantly disagreeable late Solo Violin Sonata (1944). To his credit, the performer has a valiant go at the forbidding contours of the piece, breaking through in the middle movements, where he creates an agitated and impressive split-personality effect. Kremer may not win over new listeners to this late-period piece, which premiered a year before the composer’s death, but he seems at once uncompromising and wholly committed to trying.

Argerich draws the gentle card for her solo turn, in Schumann’s familiar Kinderszenen, Op. 15. Horowitz made a minor specialty of the famous Traumerei, and Argerich conjures a comparably precious dream state. Elsewhere, in this collection of 13 miniatures, she gallops, lulls, capers, and soothes, as the moment requires. If her rubato borders on the overindulgent at times, all is redeemed when “The Poet Speaks” in the exquisitely poised final section.

This concert reaches its final, lofty peak in a peerless, unnervingly potent reading of Bartók’s 1921 Violin Sonata No. 1. Everything seems to unfold with a sense of kinetic propulsion. It begins with a rising torrent of piano runs at the outset and some ethereally strange violin trills that seem to answer, in a haunted hush, later on in the first movement. The Adagio, daringly spare, probes deeply. The sonata concludes with coruscating, scorn-laced abandon.

Then, as if to suggest that all is forgiven, Kremer and Argerich send their Berlin listeners home with a pair of brief, tender Fritz Kreisler encores.