Left breathless by Beethoven

Leonidas Kavakos
The Boston Globe

By Matthew Guerrieri

Beethoven’s reputation preceded the composer at violinist Leonidas Kavakos’s all-Beethoven Celebrity Series recital on Sunday, or at least one version of that reputation: Beethoven the volatile, radical steamroller of musical niceties. Kavakos and pianist Enrico Pace illustrated those qualities with precise, potent lines — and a minimum of shading. It was a concert of brilliant execution and somewhat exhausting insistence.

Make no mistake: They can play. Kavakos (last seen in Boston in November, conducting and soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) combined a penetrating sound — a tonal signal impressive for both its power and bandwidth — with uncannily clean technique. Pace demonstrated a finely controlled touch and an ability to maintain it at buzzing speed. The pair pursued similar versions of gilt-edged clarity, the scores transformed into sumptuously appointed sets shot with bright lights and high-definition deep focus.

Two sonatas from comparatively early in Beethoven’s career were amplified into rhetorical severity. The opening Allegro con brio of the D-major Sonata, Op. 12, No. 1, was punctuated with straight-backed, almost militaristic flourishes, and taken at a tempo such that the fastest passages became zip lines between points of emphasis. The G-major Sonata, Op. 30, No. 3, on its surface seemingly one of Beethoven’s most genial, was also coiled tight: The opening theme, a quick zig-zag of scale, bubbled from a simmer to a hard boil; the finale’s shifts of key were cornered with seatbelt-straining speed.

If Kavakos and Pace made early Beethoven sound as stormy as middle Beethoven, their middle Beethoven — the Op. 47 “Kreutzer” Sonata — was so intense as to be fissile, everything, tempi, dynamics, contrasts, pushed to extremes. The opening movement was marked by a pervasive suddenness, the closing a punishing momentum.

It was in the sonatas’ middle movements, where tempi and tone were limited to a more moderate range, that one could glimpse a more lyrical style. The “Tempo di minuetto” of the G-major was especially fine, its extraordinary series of cadences — deceptive, authentic, urgent, and wistful — adroitly navigated. The variations at the center of the “Kreutzer,” by their end, worked to a delicate poise.

That other strain finally bloomed in the pair’s encores. Their performance of pieces by Fritz Kreisler — the “Caprice Viennois” and “Schön Rosmarin” — were everything their Beethoven was not: lilting, lingering, playful, effusive. Kavakos and Pace isolated and concentrated the idea of Kreisler’s Viennese charm as much as they had Beethoven’s vehemence. Which is to say: It, too, was a distillation of compositional reputation.