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LSO/Gergiev [Lithuanian Saga ... Little Russian Symphony ... Leonidas Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Leonidas Kavakos
Classical Source

By Peter Reed

Valery Gergiev’s championing of Rodion Shchedrin’s music continued with his recent Lithuanian Saga, the premiere of which Gergiev and the LSO gave in 2009 in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. It’s a celebration of a defining moment in Lithuanian history, a battle in 1410 that established the alliance of Lithuania and Poland, an 1812 Overture-style canvas of raucous brass fanfares, hefty string tunes, a total body work-out for the percussion and a heartfelt, Górecki-like lament. As the title says, it’s a fresco and was played with a broad, gleaming sound by the LSO. Recent exposure to Shchedrin’s music (the 78-year-old composer, a spry, distinguished-looking gentleman, was in the audience) hasn’t as yet revealed a distinctive voice, but it is undeniably Russian, and full of ideas and colour.

If anything, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto has almost too much character, certainly as revealed in Leonidas Kavakos’s excoriating performance, in which he not so much played the music as inhabited it. He was more than soloist, he was like a character whose voice has gone beyond speech into music, sometimes initiating, sometimes reacting to Shostakovich’s multi-layered tragedy – the work is more of a symphony with violin than a concerto. Kavakos was extraordinary – remote, sustained and distracted in the opening ‘Nocturne’, the healing warmth of the eventual, balm-like double-stopping introduced with the utmost tact and tenderness; skittering through the demented ‘Scherzo’ with shattering velocity; taking us into the abyss that is the cadenza that grows out of the ‘Passacaglia’ and leaving us to wonder whether he’d ever find his way out – indeed, the eventual move out of it felt less like a wished-for release than mad pursuit by the demons that dominate the ‘Burlesque’ finale.

All those aspects of Kavakos’s superb artistry were there in force – his visceral intelligence, incredible breadth of musical imagination, a ravishing range of sound that seems to emanate from within him through the violin, and his spellbinding, seemingly natural virtuosity. What a guy! What a performance! And Gergiev was no less impressive, drawing out carefully graded greys in the ‘Nocturne’, bulking up the grotesqueries of the fast movements, and applying a gradual turning of the screw in the ‘Passacaglia’ – the variation with just the wind was played with a supernatural feel for sonority.

It was a very different Russia that inspired Tchaikovsky’s ‘Little Russian’ Symphony, the one built on Ukrainian folk-tunes. Gergiev’s approach was full of brio, with liberal, broad-brush application of primary colours, and plenty of ingratiating lightness in the charming Andantino marziale. Glimpses of Romeo and Juliet-style passion and the sort of fire and drama you encounter in the Fourth Symphony were reasons to be thankful that Tchaikovsky managed to keep the bully-boys of the Russian Nationalist School at arm’s length. I mean, the last movement is very skilfully done, the triumph of a little going a very long way, and was brilliantly played, but too much exposure to that particular little tune could drive you NUTS.