Defining the Art of Gravity With Strings and a Bow

11.10.11
Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

There is an art to projecting seriousness of intent and gravity of expression without giving in to ponderousness and angst, and for the most part the violinist Leonidas Kavakos was its master during his recital at Zankel Hall on Tuesday evening.

Revered widely as a fiddler’s fiddler, Mr. Kavakos possesses flawless technique and a knack for conveying intensity without resorting to histrionics. In the pianist Enrico Pace Mr. Kavakos had another special something: a partner whose quietly genial presence and sparkling touch served to balance Mr. Kavakos’s resolute focus.

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1, the opening work in the program, set the tone for the first half. The music starts as insinuation rather than flourish or pounce; Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Pace began with a conspiratorial hush, eliciting a palpable silence in the hall. Whistling muted-violin figures over stark piano chords — Prokofiev’s oft-cited “wind passing through a graveyard” — had a potent chill.

For all the beauty and evenness of his tone Mr. Kavakos did not shirk at sounding coarse when the music demanded it; his instrument barked and bit suitably in the brittle Allegro brusco. An unearthly sweetness in the third movement and the vertiginous tandem slalom of the finale completed as fine an account as you could ever wish to hear.

Lera Auerbach, in her 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, begins somewhere near where Prokofiev’s work left off, with sharp contrasts of timbre and mood. Though her vocabulary is enhanced by lessons absorbed from Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt, Ms. Auerbach’s rhetoric is built on a foundation of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Here, and only here, you could question Mr. Kavakos’s choice. Coming after so taut and gripping an account of the Prokofiev sonata, Ms. Auerbach’s music (10 preludes were included) felt like a lesser echo. You could admire passing effects — Mr. Pace’s glassy ripples in the F minor Prelude (No. 18), the mix of keening violin and sepulchral piano in the G sharp minor (No. 12), a barreling velocity in the E flat minor (No. 14) — while remaining unmoved by the whole.

The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A (“Kreutzer”), a virtuosic work ideally suited to the felicitous chemistry between Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Pace. Their interpretation showed eminent poise and authority as well as a flexibility that attested to keen listening and added a welcome hint of spontaneity.

Recalled for an encore, they offered a sprightly “Dance Russe” from Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka.”