At Mstislav Rostropovitch’s first Boston recital in the 1950’s I found myself surrounded by many empty seats. Last Sunday, violinist Leonidas Kavakos gave his Boston recital debut as part of the Celebrity Series, and Jordan Hall was less than full. Both were extraordinary concerts, and each should have marked the last time a ticket for such a player was easy to obtain. That was indeed the case for Rostropovich, but I’m not sure it will be for Kavakos. What is the difference?
First, the concert: Kavakos partnered with Enrico Pace, an Italian pianist who’s won international prizes and is active both as a soloist and chamber musician. They played three of the ten Beethoven sonatas written “for piano and violin,” opening with the first in Op. 12, moving on to the eighth, part of Op. 30, and closing after intermission with the ninth, the “Kreutzer,” Op.47.
Almost certainly the first sonata written by the young composer for this combination, the D major is dedicated to Salieri, with whom Beethoven was studying primarily vocal composition. While for modern ears it’s a sunny and not particularly complicated work, it apparently caused some consternation when first heard, as audiences took umbrage at its departures from Mozart’s sonatas and Haydn’s quartets, and some reviewers pointed to unreasonable difficulties for the performers.
The G major is not all that different from the first sonata, and it’s not played often (Lewis Lockwood, in his book that brings together so remarkably Beethoven’s persona, environment and music does not mention this sonata). Bracketed by two rapid-fire movements, the slow movement asks the players to riff repeatedly on a couple of Beethoven’s only moderately memorable melodies, and it can seem rather long.
The Kreutzer needs no introduction. It indelibly separates the pros from the amateurs, and the technical difficulties posed for both musicians are so formidable that even the grand violinists of the past, often happy to have their faithful accompanists tinkling in the background, were forced to import major pianists when recording this work. Heifetz called on Moiseivitch, Milstein on Pludermacher, and Szigeti on Arrau. In more recent years, Perlman, Kramer, and Repin teamed with Argerich. Even for virtuosi, the Kreutzer makes enormous demands.
In the first two sonatas the duo had no trouble playing all the notes. Indeed, they responded enthusiastically when Beethoven asked for lively tempi. In the Kreutzer they took their time, until the last movement took off like a bullet. At times Pace worked hard to keep up, but Kavakos looked at ease throughout, and one felt he could play far more quickly if so moved. Still relatively unknown in America, this violinist has staggering command of the instrument. From what I could see, the string players in the audience had their mouths open.
The playing seems effortless. Like so many great athletes, whether batters, swimmers, or gymnasts, Kavakos is so relaxed that he appears in danger of dropping his bow. But his finger velocity is breathtaking, and the extraordinary intonation reminds one of Heifetz, Milstein and Kremer. He uses the bow with infinite variety: long, rapid strokes, tiny motions at the tip, spiccato bounding far from the string, yet somehow the bow’s always poised for the next challenge. His dynamic range is broad, but he never makes an ugly sound. For Beethoven, he uses a narrow vibrato and often plays without any at all. He stays in the low positions and uses many open strings. Yet the tonal palette seems infinite, and the musical line was long, with subtle use of rubato bringing constant surprise and always asking the listener to pay close attention. Helped by the overtones generated by his pure intonation, his sound carried easily, even during the quietest moments.
There were particularly memorable spots. A sudden sense of storm and dissonance brought excitement to the slow movement variations of the first sonata. The constant changes in emphasis and texture were engrossing in the slow movement of the eighth, keeping it from feeling overly long. And a lightning fast, airy, humor-filled dancing finale generated smiles in the audience; Haydn would have been jealous. But if there was a moment that stood out for me, it was the start of the Kreutzer. The unaccompanied violinist faces three and a half measures of daunting double stops marked Adagio, and they almost always sound declamatory, designed to signal excitement soon to come. In striking contrast, Kavakos started with only a modest forte and then followed Beethoven’s command for a diminuendo with a magically long line that ended in a whisper. Finally, the last movement, usually bowed on the string, flew by with Kavakos demonstrating uncanny ability to control a bow that bounced wildly. In the hands of virtually anyone else it would have been out of control.
Pace was a fine partner. The ensemble was first class; the work that went into preparing the duo’s recent recording of all the Beethoven sonatas was evident. He has a rock solid rhythmic pulse, fleet fingers, and particularly in the slow movement of the Kreutzer, he showed lots of imagination as Beethoven invited the pianist to take an unaccompanied lead. At times I hoped for more color and dynamic range, and over all the left hand might have been bolder. But this was playing on a high order.
The evening ended with two encores with Austrian roots. First came Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois. Suddenly we heard a new violinist, exhibiting a “fat” sound, sensual portamento, and ample whipped cream. And to end a terrific concert, Kreisler’s charming Schon Rosemarin, demonstrated yet another set of colors as a little girl skipped shyly through the Vienna woods.
Kavakos is modest on the stage. He has long, flowing hair, dresses in simple black, but he doesn’t prance or preen. He’ll turn quietly toward the audience when introducing a change in language. On occasion he’ll end an exciting moment with a little dance step or an arm thrust high. But overall, he offers quite a contrast to Rostropovich and today’s luminaries who cavort on the stage and invariably sell out the house. My recollection is that Brahms began booming out of the grand Russian’s cello literally before he stopped bounding onto the stage, and when we caught our breath at the end of the first movement, my college roommate and I agreed that this heretofore unknown visitor from behind the Iron Curtain would never again play to an unoccupied American seat. In contrast, Kavakos asks you to listen rather than watch theatrics. His recordings yield new and subtle delights on many repeated hearings. As the fine interview in BMInt demonstrated [here], he thinks broadly, questions, explores and is not a tortured artiste. I hope he doesn’t become one of the players who puts down his instrument to pursue a (already budding) career as a conductor.
Finally, his companions were a Stradivari of 1724, crafted in the master’s 82nd year, and a bow by Dominique Peccatte, a maker renowned for rapidly responsive bows whose sound is particularly penetrating. Kavakos also admires modern violin makers; his bio lists several that he owns. Given all the debate and testing of the new versus the old, I hope he returns to Boston soon, plays some more Beethoven, and for at least one sonata, uses a modern violin. What would we learn?