Monday, March 3, 2014

A valentine to a violin

Leonidas Kavakos and the "Abergavenny" Strad.
This post is partly a valentine to Leonidas Kavakos, the celebrated violinist who played Jordan Hall last weekend as part of  Celebrity Series.

But it's also valentine to his violin, the "Abergavenny" Strad, made in 1724, at the close of the great maker's "golden" period. Clearly the "Abergavenny" is 24 carat - although the tone of any instrument is bound, of course, to the talent of the performer who plays it; indeed, there's a growing belief among those who worship at the shrine of the Strads that their magical tone is the result of all the great playing that has somehow been "imprinted" on them.

Listening to Kavakos (at right), I'm tempted to believe that conjecture. Certainly this master violinist seems to know his instrument in a way that feels almost romantically intimate. Technically, Kavakos is all but omnipotent, able to swing at will from singing strokes to sudden slashes - or exquisite spiccato - while always in control of a subtle and dynamic rubato. But his technical bravura seems to bloom into something like thought itself on this particular instrument, which is ripe yet exquisitely light, complex yet never too complicated. It is, in short, a marvel; I'm tempted to call it the most beautiful violin I've ever heard. (Kavakos is also an expert on bows, so it should be mentioned that his own are by the nineteenth-century master Dominique Peccatte.)

By the way - the music wasn't bad, either - all Beethoven, all sonatas for piano and violin. So I don't want to forget Kavakos' superb partner, pianist Enrico Pace, who coaxed showers of pearls from Jordan Hall's Steinway, and whose plushly rippling style served as both subtle support and occasional riposte to Kavakos's light, pointed lead.

The first sonata on the program was also Beethoven's first for these instruments - No. 1 in D Major (Op. 12, No. 1) and if here and there it feels like apprentice work, well make that brilliant apprentice work.  Dedicated to Beethoven's sometime teacher, Salieri (yes, that Salieri - and no, he didn't try to kill Beethoven!), it's breezy and busy at first - indeed, between piano and violin, the first movement sometimes has three separate ideas running in counterpoint (hence the importance of Kavakos' remarkably clean style, and the precise balance of his partnership with Pace).  Echoes of Mozart and Haydn waft through (unsurprisingly), and the piece's second movement - a standard set of variations - features abrupt shifts in dynamic and tone, before closing with a sweet sigh, but little sense of conclusion.  And if the final rondo dances delightfully, it too ends sans a sense of clear purpose - aside from a demonstration of its composer's talent.

Alas, the second item on the program gave something like the same impression. Sonata No. 8 in G Major is one of the lighter entries in the trio of works that make up Op. 30 - and while you can make the case for it as a tribute to Haydn, its materials are sometimes almost too simple to really intrigue.  Still, Kavakos found a touchingly lyricism in its minuet, and took its concluding Allegro vivace at a breathlessly virtuosic speed.

I was then more than ready for the heavy lifting of the "Kreutzer" Sonata, however (No. 9 in A Major), which comprised the entire second half of the concert.  Kavakos himself seemed eager to let rip: the opening movement of this all-but-symphonic sonata is notoriously passionate - and from its opening exposed statements (thick with double stops), Kavakos threw himself into the piece with a piercing mix of vulnerability and abandon. An abandon, I should say, that always evinced a remarkable level of control, even as the violinist stomped the floor of the stage (during a frenzied Presto) or swung his bow to the sky - and so always held in focus the brooding, conflicted atmosphere that we all but equate with Beethoven.  Indeed, at the close of the first movement's Adagio, you could feel waves of emotion still roiling the audience, which murmured to itself in a curiously disturbed and unsettled voice. Before beginning the second movement, Kavakos waited for us to settle down.

Nothing in the rest of the sonata reached such precipitous peaks of feeling - although the Adagio featured dreamlike trills from the piano, and exquisitely precise work from Kavakos at the very top of his instrument's range. The final Presto was then taken at almost blinding speed, the stream of nervous energy broken only by sudden, sad pauses - perhaps for the performers to catch their breath!  Unsurprisingly, the work closed to tumultuous applause, which drew Kavakos back for two encores. These were from Kreissler, Caprice Viennois and Schon Rosemarin, and seemed to come from some other sonic world - the first was lushly show-boaty, the second tripping and sweet.  And thus, delightful as they were, they seemed almost odd after the storms of the "Kreutzer" - hearing them was a bit like encountering an ice cream parlor in the desert. Perhaps they were chosen as a kind of palate cleanser - or perhaps because they would demonstrate beyond any doubt  that yes, Leonidas Kavakos can play anything and everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment