His Work Is Very Profound: Gidon Kremer on Weinberg
default, His Work Is Very Profound:
Gidon Kremer on Weinberg, Gidon Kremer, photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka / DPA / PAP, center, gidon_kremer_portret_pap.jpg
The famed violinist Gidon Kremer speaks with Culture.pl before the premiere of his ‘Chronicle of Current Events’ at POLIN in Warsaw, explaining his relationship with the music of Mieczysław Weinberg and his childhood fascination with Poland.
Gidon Kremer (born 1947) is a violinist and conductor, and founder of the Kremerata Baltica Orchestra. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory under the legendary David Oistrakh. He is one of the leading interpreters of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, dedicating several records to his work. Two of them, Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 and Chamber Music, released in 2019 on Deustche Grammophon with support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, were nominated for the International Classical Music Awards, the former also receiving a Grammy nomination.
‘This album, alongside their UK premiere of Symphony No 21 last year, has completely transformed Weinberg’s reputation in the UK,’ wrote the organisers of the Gramophone Classical Music Awards after Kremer’s Deutsche Grammophon record Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphonies No. 2 & 21 won the Orchestral Music category in September 2020.
On 9th December 2019, POLIN Museum in Warsaw premiered his ‘Chronicle of Current Events’. A day later, he appeared at the National Philharmonic together with pianist Georgijs Osokins and violinist wiolonczelistką Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė.
Filip Lech: When did you first hear about Mieczysław Weinberg?
Gidon Kremer: I don’t remember the exact date, as there were many stages of it. At first I was a student in Moscow when Weinberg came to the class of David Oistrakh to play Shostakovich Violin Sonata. It was its first performance before the work even premiered. It was held only for students [the piece is dedicated to David Oistrakh, who premiered the work on 3rd May 1969 in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory – editor’s note]. I remembered him as an acquaintance of my teacher, but I didn’t have any personal contact with him. I regret it very much. At that time, I didn’t recognise his genius.
Later, Yosif Feigelson [who recorded Weinberg’s works for Olympia and Naxos], a very good cellist and colleague of mine, mentioned to me that he was very enthusiastic about certain pieces of Weinberg, the 24 Preludes. It was in the 1980s. I remember this conversation, but I still didn’t get too interested in Weinberg.
Eventually, I discovered Weinberg only seven or eight years ago – much too late, but better late than never. I was in search for repertoire for my orchestra Kremerata Baltica, which I’ve been running for 23 years. Among other pieces, we tried to read his Symphony No 10. At that time I was also fond of String Trio and Sonatina. Step by step, the world of Weinberg started to open to me. The more pieces by him I discovered, the more I was convinced I was dealing with a truly great composer.
Now, as it’s his hundredth anniversary, I’m really happy to see the fruits of my own activity with Kremerata Baltica. We’ve recorded all the chamber symphonies. This year I did a number of recordings related to the anniversary of Weinberg – not only 24 Preludes for Accentus Music, but also the Piano Trio, Violin Sonata and two symphonies that my orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, recorded together with CBSO and Mirga Grazynite-Tula for Deutsche Grammophon. It’s the best celebration of this anniversary – people finally starting to recognise the value of Weinberg as an important 20th-century composer.
Grammy Win for Krzysztof Penderecki & the Warsaw Philharmonic
FL: Could you say something about the connections between the musical languages of Shostakovich and Weinberg?
GK: They both have a similar language. Therefore, many myths and misunderstandings arose – that Weinberg was a secondary Shostakovich, that Weinberg was a student of Shostakovich, or that he imitated Shostakovich – none of this is true.
Weinberg has his own, distinct signature. I feel like him and Shostakovich were so close to each other as good friends and colleagues that they influenced one another. You can find traces of Shostakovich in Weinberg scores, and you can find traces of Weinberg in Shostakovich scores. Each of them was an independent composer, each of them had his own voice.
FL: Could you define his musical language?
GK: You see, I’m not a musicologist, I’m only a performer trying to make sounds alive. But I can say this: Weinberg’s music is not only serious and deep, but also very honest and sincere. There is no speculation in his music. His work is very profound. I’m not trying to compare Weinberg and Shostakovich to say that the latter is less profound. I think that in music history there is enough space for many composers and undoubtedly Weinberg is one of the 20th century’s best.
FL: Which Weinberg piece do you consider to be the best?
GK: Music is not the Olympics. There are no winners and losers. I can’t go into mathematics and say: this and this piece is number 14 or 1 in my repertoire.
FL: Of course. But I was interested in your personal, emotional preference.
GK: What I can say is that unfortunately there’s a lot of Weinberg’s music I can’t play because it’s written for other instruments or it’s symphonic, operatic. Last month I listened to his opera The Idiot in Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. It’s a great piece. The Passenger is undoubtedly one of his most wonderful works. The Piano Quintet is a wonderful piece of chamber music. So is the String Trio, and Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra. The Kaddish symphony is one of the most powerful symphonies of the 20th century. It’s breathtaking, almost as if Mahler had written an eleventh symphony. Weinberg left so many opuses, for example The Gypsy Bible, Jewish Songs, the Children’s pieces – they are all wonderful. So many sonatas – sonatas for cello, sonatas for violin, sonatas for piano, for piano and cello, for piano and violin...This is such a fruitful ground for discoveries!
FL: Which piece do you like performing the most?
GK: I’m privileged to say that I’ve played about 20 pieces by Weinberg. As a violinist, I would say his violin sonatas are nearly as strong as Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, which is considered the peak of solo violin music in the 20th century.
Now I’m learning Sonata No 1 and No 2 for Violin Solo. I plan to record them. Very often I play Sonata No 5 and No 6 for Violin and Piano together with wonderful pianists such as Martha Argerich, Daniil Trifonov and Georgijs Osokins. Osokins and I will perform No 6 in Warsaw. The Piano Trio is a fantastic piece of music and I’m glad that it just was released with Sonata No 5 for Violin and Piano (Op. 136bis) and Three Pieces for Violin and Piano which he wrote when he was only 15 years old, while still living in Warsaw.
Mieczysław Weinberg's 'The Passenger' at the Danish National Opera in Aarhus – Image Gallery
FL: Is there something specifically Jewish about his music?
GK: Not only Jewish! He was following his genes, blood, the traditions in his family and the tragedy that happened to it. You can find idioms of Jewish music, but he also used Moldavian and Uzbek idioms. He quoted many things that he’d heard in his life, including a fragment of Chopin in his Symphony No 21. He himself felt very Polish, he composed many works to Polish poetry. One of his favorite poets was Julian Tuwim. Somehow, even this fact – which I discovered lately – made me feel very close to Weinberg’s soul. Tuwim was one of my favourite poets in my youth.
I asked myself: why is Weinberg so close to me? Why did I become obsessed with his music to such an extent? The quality of his scores is probably the most important factor, but besides that, his biography bears so much similarity to the biography of my father, who lost 35 relatives in the Riga ghetto. The same happened to Weinberg in Warsaw. Maybe it’s about this tragedy. I have known about it from my father since childhood. I didn’t want to identify myself with it. I wanted to be a normal child and not be burdened by the tragic memories of my father. So I always tried to talk my father out of his terrible memories, and say: OK, it all belongs to the past. But now I understand that you can’t simply accept that as someone who survived such a terrible experience. Weinberg’s music speaks about tragedies, not only about Jewishness. Me myself, having Jewish roots, I’m not looking at the world through the spectacles of Jewishness, and I don’t think Weinberg did either.
All victims of the tragedy are equal. There are people responsible for it. If they prefer not to talk about it or take a different stand, that’s their problem. We have our tools, which is music. Using the sound of Weinberg, we can show how important it is to remain human, how important it is to serve humanity, and how important it is to serve composers that are forgotten and undervalued in musical history. Weinberg is one of them. I could talk about many others, because I’ve played music by many underrated composers in the past, but this year it’s very important to me to insist that Weinberg was an important musician and a genius who should have his place in Polish music history.
FL: What’s your experience with other Polish composers?
GK: In my youth I played the music of Grażyna Bacewicz. Then Penderecki left a big trace in my life. I heard Threnody for the first time in a performance conducted by Witold Rowicki.
I’ve already started to discover another Polish composer. Maybe he is not of Weinberg’s magnitude, but still he is very original and remains almost unknown in Polish music history. I’m talking about Miłosz Magin. We just finished recording a CD of his music. This will be our next discovery, thanks to Lucas Debargue, a young French pianist, a wonderful musician [winner of the 4th prize at the XV Tchaikovsky International Competition, has recorded a CD of Szymanowski piano pieces] who was the first to introduce me to Magin. Next year our CD works will once more surprise the world with something unknown in Polish music history.
What Makes a Composer Polish?
I also think Andrzej Czajkowski is very interesting. I read his letters with Janowska – it’s a fantastic document of sincerity and openness, proof that a person can be a great artist and still remain a sincere person.
There is so much in Poland to be discovered! I’m glad to be on this soil. In my youth, I was completely fascinated by Polish filmmakers. I remember when I was a student at the Moscow Conservatory and I visited the Polish Film Festival. Over two weeks, I watched 35 Polish films.
FL: When was that?
GK: It must’ve been in the 1960s. I can’t remember exactly – 1966? 1967? Around that time. All those names – Polański, Has, Munk, Kawalerowicz and so on – have accompanied my life since then. I’m not able to say as many positive things in many countries. All those masters of film, music, theatre (Kantor!)...
Czajkowski's Merchant of Venice directed by Keith Warner – Image Gallery
classical contemporary music
FL: What about Polish musicians?
GK: I’ve collaborated with Krystian Zimerman very closely. In our class in Moscow, there was the Polish violinist Kaja Danczowska. I’ve always had Polish friends. Now my good friend Andrey Boreyko has become the chief conductor of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw.
FL: You mentioned reading Tuwim.
GK: I never read the originals because I don’t speak Polish, but I’ve read wonderful translations of his poetry: his translator was Anna Akhmatova. His poetry for children and his sense of humour were marvellous. Despite all the tragedies, he still had a lot of optimism, which is inspiring.
FL: What does it mean to be a musician?
GK: To me it’s a duty. You have to expand the horizons and pass on messages written by other people. I’m only an interpreter, but even saying ‘only’ in parentheses, I have to admit that, without interpreters, scores would belong only to museums. We make them alive. And I’ve tried to bring to life many good sounds and scores. I’ve tried to serve so many composers that it filled my batteries with energy and I hope that there’s still time to continue. In Kremerata Baltica and my young colleagues, I see a will to continue this fight for real values, and dedication to music instead of self-promotion and misuse of music.
I could go on and on, but unfortunately my time is limited, because I have to go practise Weinberg’s violin sonata… You’ll have to judge for yourself whether or not I’m telling the truth!
Interview conducted in English, November 2019
Unknown Facts From Mieczysław Wajnberg’s Biography