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Ionarts at Large: Kavakos & Leonskaja in Brahms

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Bach / Stravinsky, Sonata & Partita No.1 / Duo Concertante, Suite Italienne, w/Péter Nagy

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Ravel / Enescu, Sonate posthume, Tzigane / Impressions d'enfance, Sonata No.3, w/Péter Nagy

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Sibelius, Violin Concerto (org. & revised versions), w/Lahti SO & O.Vänskä

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Ysaÿe, Six Violin Sonatas

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Mozart, Violin Concertos 1-5, w/Camerata Salzburg
On October 7th, an embarrassingly low attendance at the Herkulessaal greeted one of the finest active violinists – Leonidas Kavakos – without bad weather or the programmed music (all-Brahms) acting as an excuse. Are Munich’s lovers of the Brahms violin sonatas holding out for when Anne-Sophie Mutter presents the exact same program exactly a month later in the Philharmonic Hall?

Kavakos on Ionarts:

Ionarts-at-Large: Thielemann & Kavakos in (More) Brahms (July 01, 2008)

Too Few Witness Sibelius Greatness (March 09, 2007)

Race to the Finnish: Osmo Vänskä in Sibelius (WETA, March 07, 2007)

Dip Your Ears, No. 28 & Best of 2005 - Stravinsky/Bach (February 13th, 2005)
This strange programming choice on the part of the Hörtnagel Agency notwithstanding, Kavakos and Elisabeth Leonskaja should have drawn more of a crowd because their performance was predictably exceptional.

In the G-major Sonata (op.78) from 1879, Kavakos’ presented a very unusual tone – détachée, somewhere between aloof, casual, and indifferent. This gave his immaculate playing a strangely distant quality, as if Kavakos observed the music being made, rather than making it himself. The just ever so husky tone and his standing on stage like an immovable rock even in the stormiest passages (as if reporting from the eye of the storm, rather than being flung about) made this sonata oddly entrancing in a way surely not to everyone’s taste, but sounding wonderful not just to these ears. Mme. Leonskaja meanwhile played with understatement and lofty musicality. The two sounded as if they played separately, yet in perfect unison. I’ve not heard this sonatas so wholly de-romanticized as here, in a somber, tragic G-major.

Op.100 in A-major managed for a similar casualness coupled with high intensity. Beautiful, effortless pianissimos were combined with nonchalant bursts of energy. The Andante tranquillo was more immediate (more ‘normal’), attaining some apropos liveliness in the Vivace part which Kavakos and Leonskaja then carried over into the Allegretto grazioso. A finer, much more conventional tone was stuck in the third of Brahms’ violin sonatas, op.108 in d-minor. It was as if all the distance had disappeared and Kavakos now played directly in front of the audience. (So much for my theory that the unusual tone from op.78 was in part related to the lack of bodies in the 1500 seat hall.)

This was fierce Brahms, no less homogenous than before, but with a directness that added fire and subtracted ‘magic’; a performance that left nothing to the imagination. Thankfully it was superb, so that the imagination didn’t have to add anything. Pleasantly notable were the metallic sounds in the slow second movement (Adagio) and the pecking opening of the third (Un poco presto e con sentimento) that Kavakos played like a highly musical chicken. The final movement (Prest agitato) was every bit as passionate as Brahms had asked for. Restraint no longer applied… and while Kavakos hides his face behind hair, beard, and glasses – all adding to his look of stern severity – he revealed himself musically in the finale. That’s not to say that it was better than the eerie, intriguing rest, but it was irresistible. The few hands that were there to applaud did so vigorously enough to elicit Brahms’ FAE Sonata movement and the slow movement of the Second Sonata as encores.