Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Schubert: Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934
Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Bartok: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 21
After large-scale performances of certified masterpieces by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall within the last few days, I was back there on Wednesday evening for a much more intimate evening with Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, whose unusual artistic chemistry has made them one of the hottest duos on the current classical music scene, on top of being two of its most sought-after soloists. Their Carnegie Hall recital a couple of years ago has remained deeply ingrained in my memory as a prime example of a highly successful collaboration, and I just could not wait to repeat the experience.
Just a few years ago, long-time violinist extraordinaire and The New York Philharmonic's current Artist-in-Residence Leonidas Kavakos would have been the bigger draw, but these days it is safe to assume that most of the audience came to see the glitzy fashion-plate and hear the truly prodigious musician that is Yuja Wang, to the point that the program, a clever, attractive and wide-ranging set of three sonatas and a fantasia, felt more like an after-thought. After all, what can't those two handle?
Janacek’s sonata was a short but not inconsequential concert opener that immediately grabbed our attention with a dramatic Con moto, in which the violin took the lead until the piano decided to restlessly join in, a Ballada that came out as a delicate rêverie, and an Adagio, in which the violin kept on interjecting jarring figures over the mournful piano. It gave the two musicians a good opportunity to establish themselves, each instrument resolutely sticking to its own mission, while still operating in perfect osmosis.
Next came my personal highlight of the evening, which counted many, as Kavakos and Wang delivered a stunning performance of Schubert’s mighty Fantasie in C Major, a shining jewel from the composer’s impressive body of work. One sprawling movement consisting of six highly contrasting sections, the brilliant composition was expertly brought to life, starting with the violin creating achingly beautiful lines while the piano insistently played on in the background, and ending with an unexpected, wildly turbulent coda. The expansive, richly lyrical Andantino was a marvel of technical wizardry and emotional expressiveness.
A beloved staple of recitals for violin and piano, Debussy’s sonata was a leisurely walk in an impressionist landscape, all subtle colors and understated elegance, which Kavakos and Wang effortlessly mastered, organically keeping the right balance between them. This was a memorable take on what ended up being the composer's last substantial output, and one that would have probably made him proud too.
We had started the evening in the Czech Republic and we finished it in Hungary, coming full circle with even more folk dance-inspired rhythms. Bartok's sonata started off with a strongly Expressionist Allegro Appassionato before slowing down in the Adagio, whose Debussyan serenity was partly spoiled by too many coughers, who seem to be as ubiquitous in concert halls as sick passengers are in subway trains these days. As if to release all the pent-up frustration, the Allegro was Bartok at his most devilishly mischievous, during which the two musicians, who had been riding two separate trains heading to the same station, let loose and finished the program with non-stop, seemingly spontaneous but no doubt sharply calibrated, virtuosic fireworks.
Our enthusiastic ovation, and a resounding shout-out to Wang from a majorly worked-up fan, earned us a very special encore in a compelling arrangement of Schubert’s lied “Sei mir gegrüsst”, whose soulful melody was also present in the Fantasie in C Major we had just heard. A perfect ending to a perfect evening.