Brooding performance by a master violinist

11.09.11
Leonidas Kavakos
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Artistry as extreme as Leonidas Kavakos' can be exhausting.

Admirably, the Greek violinist has risen to the top of his profession in tandem with artistic evolution that few artists experience over a lifetime, much less a dozen years. In 2000, he was including light Fritz Kreisler pieces in the thick of his programs. At his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the Kimmel Center on Monday, his program stretched over 21/2 hours with brooding performances of ruminative works by Prokofiev and Lera Auerbach that left you wondering if late Shostakovich could brighten things up a bit.

Even having heard Kavakos on a near daily basis during the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2009 tour, I had trouble recognizing what I heard and saw Monday. In terms of appearance, he has dropped much weight and now has shoulder-length hair. Musically, his firm, glowing tone and ability to get to the heart of a phrase were more apparent than ever. Any sense of long-term sweep in the music fended for itself or was left in the hands of his superb pianist, Enrico Pace, who repeatedly held together the most discursive musical conception.

That's fine for awhile. But after an elongated performance of Prokofiev's Violin Sonata in F minor (Op. 80), the 10 preludes selected from Auerbach's 1999 set went to the breaking point of one's tolerance for harrowing introspection. Maybe that was the idea. This 38-year-old Siberian composer was very much in abstract-expressionist mode in these pieces, many of them exploring extremes of spareness, softness, loudness, order, and chaos. I admire the fearlessness of Kavakos' endeavor, but not the mode of presentation. Though Auerbach was rightly presented as an outgrowth of Prokofiev, this music can stand on its own rather than being more of the same.

Even Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 ("Kreutzer") - an action-packed piece that has more dramatic incident than his opera Fidelio - similarly had the pair seizing upon moments of dark contemplation. The music's paragraphs tended to slow as they progressed in order to accommodate all that Kavakos needed to do with them. Yes, needed. Though the concert was hardly energizing or uplifting, it came with a sense of imperative that one encounters only in the most serious artists.