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Beethoven Sonatas for Two, With Violin and Piano Precisely Balanced

Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace at Zankel Hall

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

On Monday evening, the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the Italian pianist Enrico Pace presented the second installment of their three-part traversal of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for piano and violin at Zankel Hall. It was, in many ways, a seductive performance.

There was the visceral appeal of Mr. Kavakos’s beautiful tone, which is unusually even across the range of his Stradivarius. The balance between the two players was finely calibrated. Mr. Pace produced some exquisite colors particularly in the poetic moments, and there was humor and bite in the scherzos and folk-inflected passages.

But above all, the performance, which comprised the Sonatas No. 4 in A minor (Op. 23), No. 5 in F “Spring” (Op. 24) and No. 10 in G (Op. 96), was suffused with intelligence. In these works, Beethoven grew increasingly fascinated with small musical motifs and ways to process them in a meaningful way. It’s this development itself that becomes a battleground of ideas, while the initial spark or theme — the “what” — is less important than the journey’s “how.”

Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Pace showed a keen understanding of the structural arc of each movement, as well as the necessary patience to let it unfold to full dramatic effect. They maintained a deadpan cool for much of the second movement of the A minor sonata, where the musical material is simple to the point of being obtuse. When Mr. Pace finally allowed a few piano chords to breathe and expand, the sense of something late blooming was immediate and touching.

In many instances, the musicians played with the affective power of motion, especially where Beethoven interrupts the momentum with incessant questions, some profound, some comical. Mr. Kavakos showed a remarkable ability to match his sound to the quality of the movement, commanding both Gypsy-like earthiness and neurotic self-doubt. In the more outright melodic “Spring” sonata, individual details took on new meaning, like the placid measured trill that brought the slow movement to a gently reluctant close.

In the Opus 96 sonata, with its humble musical ingredients in the opening — a few scales and arpeggios, a halting trill passed back and forth between violin and piano — it was only late in the game that a series of hushed chord progressions on the piano elevated the music to a new, mystical level.

Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace perform Beethoven Violin Sonatas in Hong Kong on March 13 and in Shanghai on March 16. From March 30 through April 1, Mr. Kavakos conducts and performs with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, in a program of works by Bach, Beethoven and Sibelius;