Thursday, November 27, 2014

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang - Brahms, Schumann, Ravel & Respighi - 11/22/14

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor
Ravel: Violin Sonata (Posthumous)
Respighi: Violin Sonata in B Minor

As I was happily working my way through my serendipitous "Eight performances in eight days" mini-marathon, last Saturday was reserved for the crossing of the finish line back at Carnegie Hall, but in the Stern Auditorium this time, with a recital by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang. Although Zankel Hall is a much more appropriate space for this kind of intimate performance, the popularity of both performers forced them – and us – to move to the larger hall to accommodate the expected high demand.
I was in fact very curious to hear the musical sum of those two performing parts because I had a hard time imagining the combination of the well-established, thoughful violinist from Greece and the fast-rising, impetuous pianist from China. A promising program including some standard oldies but goodies by Brahms and Schumann, along with some welcome rarities by Ravel and Respighi, sounded just about the right cocktail for it.
And that’s obviously what they thought too since they showed up onstage stylishly dressed in black from head to toe as if ready to hit the New York party scene, he looking every bit like the soulful musician who lives exclusively for his art, she in a form-fitting dress short enough to guarantee her immediate admittance in the most select nightclubs.

Back to the musical component of the evening, Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 started the concert on a serene and radiant note, like a delightful sunny stroll in the countryside. Eons away from the famous pyrotechnics of the violin concerto the composer had just completed, this sonata is an uncomplicated, relaxed and animated dialogue between two long-time friends. On Saturday night, the duo on the stage eventually settled into an easy-going exchange, even if it seemed to take a little while for them to fully hit their stride together.
Then we moved on to Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 2, a longer and more challenging work that provided both musicians plenty of opportunities to display their truly dazzling virtuosic skills. There were a lot of fiery passages to marvel at, but the quieter moments created a real intimacy that was genuinely moving as well. It was an expansive, eventful journey, and the audience fully enjoyed it until the very end.
After those staples of the Romantic chamber music repertoire, the time had come for more recent pieces, first with the one-movement Violin Sonata that Ravel wrote as a student and never published in his lifetime. Listening to the work's gently melodic waves and boldly soaring peaks, I could not help but be baffled by the 22-year-old composer's lack of confidence toward this unquestionably attractive effort. Yuja Wang's assertive playing did not overpower Leonidas Kavakos' more subdued tone, although it sometimes came a bit too close to it for comfort.
More blazing sparks flew during Respighi's Violin Sonata, whose rich lyricism and natural radiance immediately brought to mind Brahms and Franck. The conventional three movements may essentially deliver the emotional intensity favored by the late Romantics, but when performed by those two highly accomplished musicians, there was really nothing more we could have asked for.

We did not literally ask for them, but our endless ovation unmistakably dropped quite a loud hint, so before we departed, we were treated to two delicious encores. The "Danse russe" from Stravinsky's Petrushka was a little marvel of laser-like precision and high spirits. Then we went back to Brahms for his lively Scherzo from the "FAE" Sonata, which was executed with just the right amount of sensitivity and brio. A totally exhilarating finish to a lovely evening, and an extensive test of endurance. Then I went to sleep.

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