A Transcendence Anchored in Bach

Gidon Kremer
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

When Lincoln Center introduced its White Light Festival last year, it described it as an exploration of spirituality in music. But the definition was diffuse: where the music was overtly secular, listeners were encouraged to think about the spiritual core of all great art. That was fine advice, but the works Lincoln Center assembled did not really amount to a coherent festival. 

This year White Light’s mission statement replaces spirituality with transcendence, a term that is considerably more vague yet makes greater sense. A festival of the transcendent can reach far and wide, stylistically and culturally, and still seem unified.

Gidon Kremer’s contribution, at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday evening, was a program devoted partly to music by or about Bach, with the great Chaconne in D minor for unaccompanied violin — as transcendent a work as you will find — as its focal point.

Mr. Kremer gave the unaccompanied chaconne a crisply articulated, assertively shaped performance near the start of the program, with Valentin Silvestrov’s 2009 “Dedication to J. S. Bach for Violin and Piano (Quasi Echo)” as a preface. Here reconfigured fragments of Bach’s chaconne flit through the solo violin opening, sometimes promising to coalesce into fully formed passages, sometimes finding spaces of their own. When Andrius Zlabys joined Mr. Kremer, playing an offstage piano, the music first grew faintly Schumannesque, then wafted into double-stopped violin figures that suggested Strauss waltzes.

Near the end of Mr. Silvestrov’s work, the splintered chaconne lines returned, only to vanish into a quiet pizzicato, and silence. Mr. Kremer did little to indicate that the work was over, and though he left a moment between the Silvestrov and the Bach, there was no applause. That seemed right, not because the Silvestrov was undeserving of the recognition but because the dark, mysterious mood it created was worth preserving, as Mr. Kremer’s taut account of the chaconne began.

Mr. Kremer and Giedre Dirvanauskaite, a cellist, closed the first half of the program with Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Rejoice” Sonata (1981), a long meditation built mostly of intensely focused, chromatic solo lines for each instrument and piercing bursts of icy, artificial harmonics. The work’s spare surface showed little sign of rejoicing in the conventional sense. But Ms. Gubaidulina’s explanation in the program notes that the shifts from full-voiced tones to harmonics represent “the transition to another plane of existence” suggests that she has a different species of joy in mind.

This religious underpinning was the work’s connection to Bach, whose instrumental pieces are often as suffused with a sense of the sacred as his church works. The connection was clearer in Mr. Zlabys’s driven, muscular reading of Ms. Gubaidulina’s Chaconne (1962). Its rhythms mirror those of the Bach, but its variations are adventurously modern.

Mr. Kremer, Mr. Zlabys and Ms. Dirvanauskaite left Bach behind and focused on transcendence of a different sort in Shostakovich’s mournful Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), the composer’s memorial to a friend and supporter, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky. Musicians never have much trouble bringing out the sense of tragedy in this score, but I have never heard a performance of the klezmer-tinged finale as urgent and gripping as the one Mr. Kremer and company gave here.