Travels of an eclectic violinist

Piazzolla, Schnittke, Pärt, Rota . . . Gidon Kremer's enthusiasms girdle the globe

Since an artist called Nige opened the floodgates, a veritable tidal wave of new versions of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons have been released, but the latest two could not be more different. Deutsche Grammophon's feisty version by Anne-Sophie Mutter comes predictably packaged with the sex-kitten soloist on the cover. But what is this moon-adorned thing from Nonesuch? "We rejected hundreds of images until we hit on the one which supported our concept," says its begetter, Gidon Kremer. "Eight phases of the moon, to reflect Vivaldi's four seasons, and Astor Piazzolla's answering four."

Hence Eight Seasons, in which, with the Kremerata Baltica - the band he's assembled from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania - Kremer creates a pungent musical mix. While the Vivaldi has an invigorating rawness, the sumptuousness of the Piazzolla tangos is tricked out with frog-croaks on the low strings and wild slides on violin. As the final track dies away, a ghostly echo of Vivaldi comes in on the very edge of audibility.

"Yes," confesses Kremer. "That was my idea, added at the last minute in the studio." But this record, he stresses, is not crossover. "It's a dialogue of two geniuses, ignoring the frame of time and geography."

This is Kremer's third Piazzolla CD, after the chaste Hommage à Piazzolla and the exotic Maria de Buenos Aires, but his own transcendence of geography goes deeper. Dubbed by Karajan "the greatest violinist in the world" after his Tchaikovsky competition triumph in 1970, Kremer has routinely girdled the globe. It was he who first got Schnittke out of Russia, and it was thanks to him that Pärt's Tabula Rasa was first heard in the West. As a pro-American avant-garder he was a constant thorn in the Soviet authorities' side, but he now champions the music of Latvia, where he was born in 1947, and where - though he's now based in Paris - he has always instinctively belonged. When I ask for his story, which comes with heavy Russo-German intonation, I'm struck by two things: how close he is to his early self, and how irrevocably that self was forged by history.

He was the only child of two violinists, and his maternal grandfather was also a violinist. His early aspiration to be a drummer - "I liked the idea of marching through the streets" - was scotched because marching bands carried different overtones for them. "My Baltic-Jewish father had lost 35 relatives, including his first wife and daughter, when the Nazis stormed the Riga ghetto, and he survived by hiding for two years in a cellar. He never wanted to forget, and he never wanted me to forget that I, too, was a Jew. I had to succeed, because my success would be his vicarious triumph." Meanwhile, Kremer's Swedish-German mother's career as a violinist had been shot to ribbons as she fled from the Nazis, then from the Soviets, then from the Nazis again. "For her, too, my success was a vicarious fulfilment."

While his mother spoilt him, his father subjected him to ferocious discipline. Since Kremer pÿre's boast was that he had once practised for 12 hours without a break, Kremer fils felt obliged to demonstrate his own prowess by doing 13. He teamed up with a like-minded bunch of perfectionists whose atonement for any day when they practised less than seven hours was to pay a fine. And he learned his outsider status the hard way, when he was refused the chance to represent his country at a Moscow festival because he was not a "pure" Latvian.

But his father was, if over-rigid, a superb tutor, and his record collection allowed young Gidon to make some great discoveries. "One day he put on a record of a piece which fascinated me, and which I later learned in a class with David Oistrakh. It was Yehudi Menuhin playing Elgar's concerto, and it established a pattern for me - of finding things which are unfamiliar, but which immediately become precious. I could say the same of records I heard by Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, or Pink Floyd - which was my first discovery that pop music could be serious, that it could reflect personality, that it could touch the heart. I think this also explains why today I am fascinated by Piazzolla."

His first real hero, though, was the American pianist Van Cliburn, who, at a stroke, transformed East-West cultural relations in 1958 by winning the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition. "There was something so genuinely romantic about a foreigner with such a clean soul, such a wonderful spirit, who could compel our jury - despite all the ideology we were not supposed to question - to accept that he was a wonderful pianist. For me, as for my friends, this was the music of freedom."

Yet to come, however, was the musical bondage of the Sixties, and the long-drawn-out martyrdom of Kremer's mentor, David Oistrakh. "Though he didn't discuss it with his students, I sensed some of the pressure he was under, but not the full incredible strain. I'm now writing a book about that period in Moscow, not just about my own problems with authority, but as a portrait of a time which many artists went through, and vividly remember still.

"I wasn't a hero - we all supported each other, and promoted new music as far as we could. I was told, for example, that Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa was not suited to the Soviet repertoire, that it was fake. We had to sense the restrictions with our skins - the presence of the State overlooking every tiny thing we were doing. Orwell hadn't seen this when he described it in 1984, but his picture was amazingly accurate, as I found when I read the novel in samizdat form."

Kremer in the 80s was the quintessential modernist, premiering works by the Western avant-garde. Kremer in 2000 is the champion of works by Georgians and fellow-Balts which are nothing if not Romantic. What does this betoken?

"Twenty years ago, I'd go straight for the most difficult stuff, but now I choose more carefully. A lot of music is done in the lab - composers composing for composers - but I want to do music that speaks to the soul. So I'm going for composers with something to say, who have a heart that isn't just physically beating, but one that catches fire."

A few years ago, Kremer let it be known that he was finished with Beethoven and Brahms, but he now wants to correct that impression. "I've just been giving them a rest. Next year, I'm playing both." He'll also continue to play the film music by Rota, Takemitsu, Milhaud, and Shostakovich, to be heard on his CD Le cinéma. But for him, the cinema will continue to be symbolised by the wooden barn on the Latvian shore where - beneath a banner bearing Lenin's endorsement of the medium - he first fell in love with Snow White, Rhapsody, and Charlie Chaplin.

'Eight Seasons' and 'Hommage à Piazzolla' are on the Nonesuch label and 'Le cinéma' on Teldec.

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