A Violinist and a Pianist Time Travel, Guided by a Virtuoso's Whims

Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace in Beethoven Violin Sonatas

By Vivien Schweitzer

The cover of a recent Decca recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas features a large photo of the violinist Leonidas Kavakos. His name, rendered prominently, overshadows that of his pianist, Enrico Pace, demurely inserted below. It’s a puzzling image, not only because Beethoven scored these works for equal partners but also because, as their recital on Sunday evening at Zankel Hall demonstrated, these musicians are masters of balanced ensemble playing.

Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Pace are performing the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas during three concerts as part of Carnegie Hall’s Vienna: City of Dreams festival. Cycles of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, symphonies and string quartets are commonplace; the violin sonatas are much less frequently offered in entirety.

Nine of the sonatas were written between 1797 and 1803. They highlight Beethoven’s virtuosity as a keyboard player — the early models showing the influence of Mozart, the later sonatas breaking new ground.

The first installment of the cycle on Sunday opened with an intimate rendition of the Sonata No. 6 in A (Op. 30, No. 1), whose first edition specified that the three Opus 30 sonatas were composed for piano “with the accompaniment of a violin.” Here and throughout the program, Mr. Pace demonstrated a limpid touch, immaculate control and expressive phrasing, his approach well matched by the beautiful sound and elegant musicianship of Mr. Kavakos.

The program continued with the Sonata No. 3 in E flat (Op. 12, No. 3) and the Sonata No. 2 in A (Op. 12, No. 2). One contemporary of Beethoven’s described the set of three Opus 12 sonatas, which build on the classical tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Salieri, as “a heaping up of difficulties on difficulties till one loses all patience and enjoyment.”

The 18th-century listener perhaps objected to some of Beethoven’s innovations, like the adventurous modulations and rhythmic twists in the finale of Op. 12, No. 2. Mr. Kavakos and Mr. Pace performed with refinement and impeccable taste, although they at times verged on being too restrained and understated.

But the emotional temperature heated up, appropriately, for the program finale, the Sonata No. 7 in C minor (Op. 30, No. 2). Like No. 6, it was completed in 1802. With its mysterious, rumbling passages in the piano and heroic, large-scale gestures, No. 7 sheds the genteel vestiges of the earlier works. The duo played with a dramatic flair that concluded the concert on an exciting note.