This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Fanfare Magazine. Copyright © 2016 by Fanfare, Inc. Used by permission.
Afamiliar figure on the international concert scene in Europe, Asia, and the United States, cellist James Kreger first gained worldwide attention in 1974 at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he was the top American prizewinner. Judges and audiences alike hailed his playing as “amazingly poetical and technically superb.”
Among the many internationally acclaimed conductors with whom Kreger has worked have been Erich Leinsdorf, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Carlo Maria Giulini, Leonard Slatkin, Zubin Mehta, Carlos Kleiber, James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Gerard Schwarz, and Michael Tilson Thomas. He has collaborated with many famous artists and chamber ensembles of our time, including András Schiff, Richard Goode, Heinz Holliger, James Galway, Wynton Marsalis, the Tokyo and Vermeer Quartets, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
This interview and review may be a first for Fanfare; certainly they’re a first for me. James has made a number of recordings of works for cello and orchestra—Dvořák and Victor Herbert concertos and Strauss’s Don Quixote—as well as works for cello and piano and chamber ensembles—Mendelssohn and Ibert—all of which are available in CD form and as downloads from Amazon and iTunes. But he has also recorded live performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms, which are thus far available only for listening and viewing as YouTube or independently posted on-line clips.
Let me just clarify upfront for our readers that in this context the word “clips” does not refer to the brief excerpts one can audition on various download sites before deciding whether or not to purchase. These are recordings of complete works, though, for reasons to be explored below, are usually broken up into separate URLs for each movement of multi-movement works.
So my first question to you, James, is: Why? What are the benefits, and the downsides as well, of getting your recordings out on YouTube to audiences and getting them the attention they deserve?
The benefits are the obvious expanded listening audience, which, by its very design, the Internet and YouTube provide to a worldwide audience. I don’t see a downside in the sense that everyone has their own personal taste, and that’s the way it should be. Often, and especially in today’s world, certain artists and personalities are much more lauded than others. This certainly does not mean things will stay constant. We live in an age where image has become far more important than content. It pervades everything. Over the sands of time, however, perceptions and personalities are reevaluated.
If you get enough hits on these clips, are there plans to transfer them to CDs and/or make them available as downloads?
Yes, in the future the clips could be made available in other formats. We have to realize everything in the music world is increasingly geared toward streaming as opposed to downloading. This is true to a lesser degree at the moment with classical music, but it’s changing rapidly.
Without getting too technical or detailed, can you describe how you go about recording these clips and getting them posted to YouTube or under your own independently posted clips?
These clips, for the most part, are from unedited raw recordings of live performances, warts and all. It is the imperfect side that is the real allure. One could write volumes about this, but the magic of genius, with the exception of perhaps someone like Mozart (and there is no one like him!) lies in being slightly off, in other words, not perfect. For example, many orchestras and even opera companies issue unedited recordings of live performances on their own labels. Now—and this has been the case for a while—it is possible using digital software literally to remove all imperfections, wrong notes, etc. from any recording. The result is more often than not clean and sanitary but alas devoid of magic, intent, and import. Listeners may marvel, but they won’t be emotionally moved. These kinds of perfect recordings are less in vogue today. The often unforgettable excitement and passionate emotional spontaneity of recorded raw, unedited live performances is taking over. That’s where YouTube comes in.
Something I’m curious about is why it’s necessary, or desirable, to break up multi-movement works into separate URLs. It’s not something that makes it convenient for listeners. And what happens when movements are connected with no pauses between them? Are there length limitations to how long a YouTube clip can be?
There used to be a 10-minute time limit for each clip. That has gradually expanded. Obviously, if movements are connected without pauses, it used to be quite an annoyance if one had passed the time limit. Now with the longer clip allowance things seem better in that regard.
Okay, let’s talk about the music. With pianist, the late David Golub—a longtime friend of yours from your student days at Juilliard and well-known from his extensive collaborations with the famous Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio, Mitch Miller, Isaac Stern, and the movie From Mao to Mozart—you recorded Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, op. 3, an early piece the composer wrote in 1829 at the age of 19. It would be one of three pieces Chopin wrote for cello and piano. The second one, the Grand Duo Concertante, followed not long after in 1832, but it was a collaborative effort with famed cellist at the time, Auguste Franchomme, who actually provided the cello part. Chopin’s final work for cello and piano, the Sonata in G Minor, is a late work dating from 1846, and one of his greatest masterpieces. Tell me about the early Introduction and Polonaise you’ve recorded. At this early stage, did Chopin have a good grasp of cello technique and of scoring for the instrument?
In 1829 Chopin composed the Polonaise portion of his Introduction and Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano, op. 3, for amateur cellist Prince Antoni Radziwiłł and his pianist daughter Wanda, to whom he gave a number of lessons. Although he taught both of the Prince’s daughters, it is said that he had more than a musical interest in Princess Wanda, and in a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski Chopin indicated he wanted Princess Wanda to practice it. (“I should like Princess Wanda to practice it. She is a beautiful girl of seventeen and it was charming to guide her delicate fingers.”) The Introduction was written in April 1830 and that same year was joined together with the Polonaise for the first time in a performance by Polish cellist Józef Kaczynski. In 1831 Chopin published the Introduction and Polonaise brillante along with a violin/piano version and a dedication to the cellist Joseph Merk. In 1835 a new edition appeared (no doubt with the composer’s approval), which incorporated bravura changes to the cello part by Chopin’s dear friend August Franchomme, transforming it into a real virtuoso showpiece. Since then various cellists, including most famously Emanuel Feuermann, made their own version, inserting greater difficulties for the cellist.
Next up is Brahms’s E-Minor Cello Sonata No. 1, op. 38. I have to tell you that this is probably my all-time favorite work for cello and piano. The opening theme is already so full of sadness and longing, even though Brahms was only 32 when he completed it in 1865. After sending the score to Breitkopf & Härtel for publication and being turned down, Brahms sent it to Simrock and, thinking to have better luck, he included a disingenuous note describing the work as “a violoncello sonata which, as far as both instruments are concerned, is certainly not difficult to play.” I’m neither a cellist nor a pianist, but I suspect the sonata is very challenging technically, especially the last movement, but it’s not really a virtuoso work in the manner of showpieces by contemporary cellist-composers such as Alfredo Piatti and David Popper. What do you find to be the biggest technical hurdles in the sonata?
I share your enthusiasm for the Brahms E-Minor Cello Sonata and believe it is one of his greatest works. When one talks about “technical hurdles” in the Brahms Sonata, and indeed in most of the Brahms oeuvre, these are much more fused together with the musical conception and intent. Even if technique becomes virtuoso technique in Brahms, it is always subservient to the musical intent. That by its very definition implies many levels and far greater depth of content than it would in a work by Piatti or Popper. Playing the Cello Sonata as well as other chamber music by Brahms is full of infinite difficulties and challenges. The musical design of the Sonata is profound, initially inspired by an “homage to J. S. Bach,” with the principal theme of the first movement and of the fugue based on Contrapunctus 4 and 13 of The Art of Fugue. The work is intended as true chamber music, with the piano and cello being equal partners, unlike a Piatti or Popper work where by and large the piano remains in an accompanying role. The Sonata is entitled “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello” (for Piano and Cello) and the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” (quoted from Wikipedia)
Finally, you tackle the second of Beethoven’s two early cello sonatas, the G-Minor, op. 5/2, believed to have been composed for the listening, and possibly playing, pleasure of Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, while Beethoven was in Berlin. A modestly talented amateur cellist, the King may have found the technical demands of the sonatas somewhat above his pay grade, but they were almost certainly performed for him by one or another of the two Duport brothers, either Jean-Pierre or Jean-Louis. What I’ve always found interesting about these two cello works is how early on Beethoven tackled the instrument in so serious a way. It seems almost counterintuitive that he would have composed sonatas for the cello before writing a single violin sonata, but he did, and the two early cello sonatas are already quite mature works, evidencing a strong grasp of the instrument’s mechanics and special voice. What is your sense of the G-Minor Sonata?
I agree with what you have said. Although it’s entitled “Sonata for Piano with Accompaniment of the Violoncello,” implying a secondary role for the cello, this was de rigueur at the time, even for violin sonatas. Coming from the continuo tradition, usually the cello would double the left hand of the piano, and the right hand of the piano would be delegated to filigree, ornamentation, etc. In the op. 5/2 Beethoven still gives the cellist plenty to do. By the way, this may be one of the first chamber works where it is Beethoven who is accredited with actually writing out the right hand music for the piano. The composer obviously had a fascination for the cello and cellists. By the time he wrote his Triple Concerto, op. 56, for Piano, Violin, and Violoncello, he gives the opening theme of each of the three movements to none other than the cello!
I see you are partnered by a different pianist in each of the three works. In the Chopin, it’s the aforementioned David Golub; in the Brahms, it’s Robert Preston; and in the Beethoven, it’s Meg Bachman Vas. How did you meet and hook up with each of them for these projects?
David Golub and I were close friends since our Juilliard days in the 1960s—70s. We played many concerts together, did several “Music from Marlboro” tours, and established a trio with violinist Glenn Dicterow, who I’d known from Los Angeles since we were teenagers. I had met Glenn through my friendship with his brother Maurice, also a fine violinist, at the AFM International Congress of Strings at Michigan State University in 1964.
In 1963 I was still living in my birthplace, Nashville, where I won a place at the Congress through the local musicians union. The following year my family moved to Los Angeles, where again I won a place at the Congress from the Los Angeles local. The American Federation of Musicians accomplished a wonderful thing in the 1960s when they sponsored the Congress of Strings and moved mountains to establish a successful nearly 10-year program aimed at promoting string playing in the United States and Canada and intensifying a nationwide interest in live music. The 100-piece string orchestra consisted of youthful instrumentalists, 15 to 22 years old. They were chosen in competitive auditions throughout the United States and Canada to attend an all-expense paid eight-week summer session under the top first-chair symphony teachers of the day and major conductors such as Eugene Ormandy, wholly sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians and some 700 affiliated locals. Apologies for the digression!
Back to the Dicterows: Glenn’s father Harold was principal second violin of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His mother Irina came from Russia and was a fine pianist and visual artist in her own right. Glenn had told me that his mother was a relative of the famous Irving Berlin. The Dicterow family exuded tremendous camaraderie and warmth and took me in as one of their own. It seemed like hardly a week went by without a wonderful chamber music marathon at their home, always followed by an array of delicious delicacies personally prepared by Irina. Among the many musicians I met there important lifelong friendships developed, including with the marvelous pianist Gerald Robbins, a close relative of the violin-piano duo Benno and Sylvia Rabinof. Indeed, it seemed like everyone I met at the Dicterow home was in one way or another deeply involved in the music world. Gerald Robbins’s father Sam had worked with George Gershwin pushing songs on Tin Pan Alley!
Robert Preston and I met through mutual friends, including the late violinist Erick Friedman, with whom we established the Preston-Friedman-Kreger Trio. Two complete live performances of our rendition of the Arensky D-Minor Trio are available on YouTube. I respect Robert’s artistry immensely and consider many of our performances high points in my life as an artist. Once I received a message through YouTube from the grandson of Alexander Siloti, who was trying to get in contact with Robert after listening to some of our YouTube videos. Siloti was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first cousin and a major student of Franz Liszt. The grandson wrote that his mother told him Robert’s playing reminded her of the great Alexander Siloti more than any pianist she had ever heard. Robert is also a phenomenal photographer. His mentor was the legendary Ansel Adams, and indeed they had much in common. Ansel was an accomplished pianist himself, so much so that at one time he considered a career as a concert pianist.
Meg Bachman Vas and I met through Carol Adler, who at one time was my manager. As with many of the pianists I am fortunate to work with I loved collaborating with Meg. Our recital at New York’s 92nd St. Y was very well received.
I’d like to follow up with you on your interview with James Forrest in the September-October, 2015 issue (Fanfare 39:1). Teaching is a big part of your career, and I was wondering what state of technical preparedness and musical knowledge the students come to you with. My concern is that public education at the junior high and high school levels in this country has failed miserably at one of its most fundamental missions, which is to transmit the culture from one generation to the next. Chalk it up to budget cuts and/or to programs designed to establish national standards of curricula and testing based on a narrow set of academic achievement that discount the liberal arts, I fear we’ve produced a generation of musical illiterates. When I was in junior high school, a semester or two of music education was a requirement. You had to take up an instrument or sing in the school choir. In the high schools there were active, robust music programs across the city; and the best players from the schools’ orchestras, bands, and choirs joined together for all-city concerts. By the time I got to college, I knew all of the standard orchestral repertoire and a good deal of the mainstream chamber music literature. Today, kids give you a blank stare if you mention Chopin or Brahms. They may have heard the name “Beethoven,” but have probably never heard a note of his music; and what’s taken for music by so many young people today is rap blaring from a passing car. What are your thoughts on this, and can you envision some remedy for it?
To answer the first part of your question, students come to me in varying states of technical preparedness and musical knowledge. We desperately need to bring the arts back into the schools. The arts are the cornerstone of who we are as human beings on this earth. Scientific evidence has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that children and teenagers who are exposed to the arts in school are the beneficiaries of tremendous gifts. Great art and especially great music by its very nature is so powerful that usually it will bypass the intellect and launch a direct pathway to the human emotions. At the heart of the arts is music, the one truly universal language. It speaks volumes, eliciting meaning in the listener way beyond what words can communicate. Most importantly, our young people need to be exposed to it. When it comes to the arts, exposure is a powerful educator. The arts have a way of teaching children intangible things like creativity, personal expression and individualism. It has been scientifically demonstrated that children exposed to the arts, including music, learn more effectively. Our troubled youth often are inspired with an alternative to delinquent behavior. Increased self-confidence and academic performance is a frequent by-product. And I haven’t even mentioned what happens to the local economy when those fortunate to have been exposed to the arts become young adults and ardent fans of music, including orchestra, chamber, opera, etc. They become supporters of the local orchestra, building a concert hall, opera house, etc. Wherever a community establishes an arts center, concert hall, opera house, or the like, the economy thrives. An excellent example is the Lincoln Center area in New York City, where residential real estate values per square foot are the highest in all of Manhattan.
In your previous interview, you touch on a subject some might find a bit controversial. Unless I misunderstand you, you seem to be saying that the older technologies of recording and broadcasting afforded “greater vent to our imagination,” as you put it, and that “today’s recorded sound and video have advanced to such a degree of clarity and ‘accuracy’ that there is less room for the imagination.” Am I correct to surmise from this that you think what has been gained in these advances has simultaneously resulted in some loss of spontaneity and emotional expression? You speak so eloquently in your previous interview of that moment in the second movement of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 that brought you to tears while playing in the Met Orchestra, and made you feel as if you’d “been lifted up to Heaven and the strings were the angels slowly marching with reverence toward the altar of God.” I know exactly what you mean because there are moments like that for me in music too, especially in Beethoven’s middle and late quartets, and in the closing pages of the third movement of the “Archduke” Trio, where the cello and violin sing to each other as the piano plays a series of repeated notes high on the keyboard. It’s a moment of stillness and of quiet ecstasy, yet one of intense yearning to reach out and touch the finger of God, as in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Music—great music—has the power to touch and move us in that way, to increase our self-awareness, our depth of understanding and compassion, and to alter our lives and make us better human beings. From what you’ve said in your interview with James Forrest, I can only conclude that you feel the same way. Would you care to elaborate further on this?
I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. What I meant when I touched on the older technologies of recording and broadcasting, that they afforded “greater vent to our imagination,” was simply that because these technologies were not as advanced as our present ones, what we heard was almost as if it were behind a film or scrim. The result was that our imagination went into high gear, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Listening to an old-time radio broadcast of a concert, for example, we knew we weren’t there, and we heard it in low-quality sound. That experience often triggered our imagination to create or idealize what we wanted or needed from our inner core. Today recording/broadcast technology has advanced to such a degree that in effect we are told exactly how we should listen. It’s clear and precise. A great sound engineer can get us as close as possible, but we’re still not there in the actual space. The imagination is less stimulated in a sense due to the tremendous “accuracy” of the sound.
Finally James, what’s next on your agenda? Any works in particular you’d especially like to record?
I’m very much looking forward to more chamber music, both in performance and recording. One work I adore with a passion is the Schubert E-flat Major Piano Trio. Years ago I was fortunate to perform it at the old Getty Museum in Los Angeles with the great violinist Henri Temianka. It left an indelible mark.Return to top