With Kavakos, thought trumps technique

Leonidas Kavakos
Minneapolis Star Tribune

By Larry Fuchsberg 

Athens-born Leonidas Kavakos is not only a consummate violinist but a musical thinker of some originality.
Bach is central to Kavakos' thinking, so it was no surprise that his nourishing recital with Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy Monday at Ordway Center -- the opening concert of the Schubert Club's International Artist Series -- began with the vast Chaconne that crowns Bach's Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin, one of the summits of the repertoire.

What was surprising was the way he played it. His was an austere account, relatively intimate in scale, with little of the outward drama (and almost none of the vibrato) in which more romantic violinists typically revel. He barely tapped the sonorous riches of his dark-hued, 1692 Stradivarius. Technique, though astonishing, was never a focus. Kavakos -- a third-generation violinist who turns 42 Friday -- fixed his unwavering gaze on the music's architecture. All else, he seemed to say, is distraction. With its energy turned in upon itself, the

Chaconne took on a meditative intensity that made it feel new.

Approached in similarly unrhetorical fashion, Robert Schumann's seldom-heard D-minor Sonata (1851) sounded less than wholly persuasive. Its weighty outer movements combine pockets of exquisite inwardness (frequently evoking the idealized domesticity so dear to this composer) with labored developmental passages, which need the ministrations of an imaginative colorist to keep from bogging down. Kavakos, though fully equipped to intervene, too often left Schumann to fend for himself; Nagy, at the piano, sometimes seemed distant and self-contained. The performance clicked only in the songful third movement, realized with artful simplicity, its hushed ending unforgettable.

All this was prelude, however, to George Enescu's wondrous Third Sonata (1926), attacked with exacting abandon by violinist and pianist alike. Enescu biographer Noel Malcolm writes that the Romanian composer (a nationalist and cosmopolitan both) didn't just assimilate folk elements in this sonata but invented an entire folk language -- a language of everyday exoticism, strikingly un-European in feel. Kavakos, in a rare instance of Balkan solidarity, plays like a native speaker of this concocted tongue, capturing the improvisatory rush that Enescu (who devised an elaborate notation for this purpose) sought to freeze on the printed page.

Kavakos, rhapsodic and mysterious by turns, couldn't help dancing a bit at the start of the final Allegro, which calls to mind a gypsy violinist in a smoky, brandy-soaked café. I was ready to join him.