Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Leonidas Kavakos @ Wigmore Hall, London

6 June 2006

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Dnes Vrjon took to the Wigmore Hall’s stage tonight, to present a programme ranging from Beethoven to Bartk as part of a festival held in honour of the Hungarian composer’s 125th birthday.

Kavakos was playing the ‘Falmouth’ Stradivarius of 1692, and at first I was worried that he wouldn’t do the wonderful instrument justice.

The unfortunate start to the evening featured Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A, Op. 30, No. 1 (1801-02).

I say unfortunate because although Vrjon clearly deserved the description ‘one of the most important Hungarian artists of his generation’, Kavakos’ list of accolades seemed puzzling, given to the stiff nature of his playing.

It was almost as though he was trying too hard. Kavakos’ bizarre bobbing towards the end of the third movement seemed to be trying to make up for his pianissimo moments, which lacked intensity. The tone also wavered and the cadenza in the central movement was more depressingly static than ‘unassuming’. However, there were some beautiful moments in the same movement which bought out the piece’s passionate lyricism.

These moments increased in the next number, Busoni’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 36a (1898-1900). Although this piece draws inspiration from Beethoven (and Bach), it was written almost 100 years after the first piece, and Kavakos seemed to use the romantic chromaticism to warm up to his surroundings. He responded well to Busoni’s spicy rhythms, particularly the habanera, which led into an exciting Presto. The more gentle, lyrical sections were also effective and were played with impassioned melancholic depth.

After the interval the confidence in Kavakos’ playing continued to grow and the two performers seemed to be communicating to a greater degree. This was just as well, because the next piece required it. They played Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1916-17). This was first performed by the composer a year before his death and includes his most advanced and mature techniques. The two performers brought the glimmering French fantasy world of the composer to life.

The piece which the concert built up to was undoubtedly the Bartk, his Violin Sonata No.1 (1921). Not only was it the most rhythmically and texturally extreme and complex of all the sonatas, but the performance was energetic and exciting. Even though the two instrumental parts don’t have an obvious connection with one another, Kavakos and Vrjon married the conflicting lines of music so that they fed off each other, rather than battling in vain.

The raw folk textures and the incandescent tremolos which seemed to depict Eastern European summer evenings were brought to life by Bartk’s enticing instrumental parts. It was certainly the right thing with which to end the evening’s entertainment, as it rendered the problems at the beginning forgivable. However, due to the audience’s exuberant applause, the duo returned to Beethoven for an encore. This was the second movement of the F major Violin ‘Spring’ Sonata Op. 24 and was played with a lulling and peaceful beauty proving.

So after a shaky start, which unfortunately took nearly the whole of the first piece to right itself, the evening redeemed itself by offering up some treats.

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