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By David Patrick Stearns
Though Leonidas Kavakos is as established as a concerto soloist can be in classical music terrains, he is so often identified as "the Greek violinist" that it might as well be part of his name. Greek classical musicians aren't encountered that frequently, for whatever reason. But at his Friday Kimmel Center recital, Kavakos showed what such a nationality can mean.
In violinist terms, his hands ought to be insured for millions - they're priceless. But the mind behind it all played Bach's unaccompanied "Chaconne" from the Partita in D minor with such keen structural perception that each microsection emerged with its own subtle character and particular brand of rhythmic continuity. And though the piece - a monument in the violin literature - is usually positioned as a concert climax, he started his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program at this high peak without any danger of the rest being a letdown.
In contrast to Bach (where every note counts for all it can possibly imply), Kavakos faced thickets of less-considered notes in Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 2, whose triple-digit catalogue number (Op. 121) means the piece comes from a period in the composer's life when his sanity - and thus concentration - was waning. What he most often produced, then, was overwritten first drafts; this sonata is among the better ones.
The slow movement, though, rises above the rest. It's unlike anything in all of Schumann, exuding all the ingenuous lyricism of an old American hymn as it might be adapted by, say, Mark O'Connor. Kavakos phrased that music memorably, while he and pianist Peter Nagy navigated the rest of the piece with as much intricacy as possible while also giving it enough sound and rhetorical force to convincingly barrel through to the end.
Kavakos' Greekness felt evident in Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 25 by George Enescu - a feast of color and theatrical gestures in music for any accomplished violinist. But with Kavakos, it became a complete, mesmerizing sound world that perhaps even the composer (a great violinist whose few recordings include Schumann's Op. 121) couldn't have put across to this consummate degree.
Enescu's Romanian folk element is more radical than in Bartok, so much so that the music is unmoored - seemingly at its deepest level - from anything typically European, sharing a sense of gravity (as well as use of microtones) with the more elemental corners of Greek music (Byzantine chant from the Mount Athos Monastery, for example). With Nagy asked to imitate quaint folk instruments, the sonata might have seemed like restaurant music. Instead, it was dark, edgy, and mysterious. The audience cheered enough to warrant encores, but what could follow that?