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Gidon Kremer's Bach Makeover

For violinist Gidon Kremer's new album, he commissioned 11 composers to rework and build on keyboard music by J.S. Bach.
Courtesy of ECM records
For violinist Gidon Kremer's new album, he commissioned 11 composers to rework and build on keyboard music by J.S. Bach.

Perhaps no other composer's music has been dressed up (and down) in a wider variety of outfits than Johann Sebastian Bach's. Whether draped in Leopold Stokowski's lush symphonic accoutrements or stripped down to a simple banjo, marimba, accordion, harmonica or even a Japanese shamisen, Bach's durable melodies and harmonies always survive, remarkably unscathed.

The master himself was an enthusiastic rearranger of his own pieces, and something tells me he would appreciate violinist Gidon Kremer's The Art of Instrumentation: Homage to Glenn Gould. The new album sports fresh and intriguing makeovers of several Bach keyboard classics favored by the late pianist Glenn Gould.

Gould's name could easily have been left off of this fascinating project except that both Kremer and Nonesuch record label head Robert Hurwitz both knew Gould, and it was Hurwitz who suggested some new string arrangements of Gould's faves. Kremer ran with the idea, asking 11 contemporary composers to rethink Bach pieces and create new ones for him to play with his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica. They were premiered at the Chamber Music Connects the World festival in Germany in 2010.

There are many moments in this album to make you smile, wonder and simply bask in the beauty of the music — both Bach's and the additional twists provided by composers like Kremer favorite Valentin Silvestrov, whose Dedication to J.S.B. opens the CD and lives in Silvestrov's signature dreamy sound world. The music, for solo violin and vibraphone, resembles Bach's grand Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 at the start and quickly floats into watery pedal points, suddenly giving way to a sweet and luminous lullaby midway through.

The vibraphone — so effective for ethereal touches, especially when played by Kremerata percussionist Andrei Pushkarev — makes repeat appearances throughout the album. It adds a wistful tenderness to Georgs Pelecis' finespun take on the Aria from the Goldberg Variations; it plays a straightforward solo in a remodeled Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp minor (from the Well-Tempered Clavier) by Victoria Vita Poleva; and it helps lay a darkly textured foundation for Giya Kancheli's Bridges to Bach, which features the Georgian composer's typical mood swings — from serene and supple to jagged and thunderous.

Australian composer Carl Vine proves how much can be done with a simple handful of strings. His makeover of Bach's sublime slow movement from the Keyboard Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) begins forthrightly, with Kremer soloing above lovely pizzicato. But soon the plucking turns syncopated. Strings flutter in falling scales, plucking gets dramatically louder as strings swoop and careen, turning the once docile music into a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score.

The 65-year-old Kremer, with his reputation as an unconventional violinist — whether he's playing Mozart or Piazzolla — gives characteristically detailed performances, helping to lend each piece its own personality. Hurwitz, recalling one of his evenings with Gould in the album booklet, notes that the great pianist once commented on Kremer, saying: "There are those who say that, in the way he plays and in his attitudes about music, he resembles me. And after meeting him, I have to agree."

Maybe it's a good idea after all that both Gould's and Kremer's names appear on this lovely and alluring new album.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.