Kavakos takes audience on intense, dark ride

Leonidas Kavakos
Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

Intensity is Leonidas Kavakos' calling card. The Greek violinist has gained admittance to the pantheon of outstanding instrumentalists with more than just a breathtakingly clear tone and exceptionally athletic fingers: He is one of those rare musicians capable of taking an audience to the depths of a composer's soul.

On Monday night, Kavakos opened the Schubert Club's International Artist Series season with a recital that shuddered with intensity. From the moment he stepped onto the stage of St. Paul's Ordway Center alone to perform the Chaconne from J.S. Bach's Second Partita, he asked the audience to follow him out onto a tightrope. And it proved well worth the risk, as he delivered an explosive, exciting performance.

Bearded and bespectacled, the tall, black-clad violinist cut an imposing figure as he poured passion into every piece on the program. After lending a gentle touch to the Bach — yet filling the hall with his pure, powerful tone — Kavakos dived heart-first into the seldom-played Second Sonata of Robert Schumann.

The agitated energy of the first movement sounded as if Kavakos thought the composer railing at the fates a la Beethoven. Hence, he bowed with a hair-splitting fury, resolving in a long vibrato-laden final note that sounded like a sigh of resignation and exhaustion. But the volatility returned on a tempestuous finale that found Kavakos and pianist Peter Nagy engaged in a breakneck chase with a flurry of hairpin turns in mood and dynamics.

Schumann can take listeners to dark places, but George Enescu's Third Sonata explored those emotions even more intensely. While the composer subtitled the work, "In the Romanian popular character," this was no sprightly folk dance. The first movement cast a spell before giving way to a chilling, sometimes dissonant air of anxiety and trepidation. On the finale, Kavakos burst forth with an explosive combination of strumming, plucking and fast, fluid passages, executed with astounding technique and small leaps at the conclusion of each phrase. It was an exhilarating, almost exhausting performance to experience.

Not until a pair of encores did the violinist allow his lyrical side to emerge, filling each with a lushly romantic sound that sent the appreciative audience home with a smile.