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Kavakos and Pace bring a distinctive approach to Beethoven

Leonidas Kavakos
Boston Classical Review

By Aaron Keebaugh

Following their successful recording of Beethoven’s violin sonatas last year, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Enrico Pace are taking this repertoire to places far and wide this season. In the coming weeks alone they will make appearances in Toronto, New York, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

The duo’s unique interpretation in three of the ten sonatas, heard in their Celebrity Series debut at Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, managed to shine new light on this music.

Boasting a daring technique, the Greek-born Kavakos has been called a violinist’s violinist. But it was his instrument’s golden, singing tone, matched by Pace’s expressive accompaniment at the keyboard, that made Sunday afternoon’s concert one to remember.

The Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1, with its Haydnesque charm, made a graceful opener. The musicians played the first movement with a quiet, if understated energy—an Allegro without the con brio. The finale dazzled but was never heavy.

Most attractive were the variations that make up the second movement. Pace led the first of these with twinkling touch and round phrasing. Kavakos gave the high chattering line of the following variation the watery flow of a bel canto aria.

Graceful airs also characterized the Sonata in G major, Op. 30, No 3. Its supple second movement featured the duo at their finest. Though marked “Tempo di Minuet,” this music has the lyricism of an art song. Kavakos’ reverential line seemed to sound from a distance, like a solo hymn sung in a large cathedral.

Pace pulled Mozartean elegance from the churning runs of the first movement. But his playing here didn’t quite have the luster he gave the D major Sonata. The low, rolling of notes that pepper the development section sounded milky and didn’t convey the music’s wit. That changed in the finale, where the musicians gave the dissonant jingles the groove of a gypsy band.

It’s easy to relish in the tender reading Kavakos and Pace gave the D major and G major sonatas, but one often missed the characteristic weight and punch found in these scores.

More drama, though, came after intermission, when they performed the Sonata in A major, Op. 42.

The most well-known of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, the A major, known as the Kreutzer, is a work of sparkling virtuosity, poetic depth, and symphonic length.

Kavakos and Pace drew out the storm-and-stress intensity of the first movement a little at a time. After a sweet-toned treatment of the opening cadenza, the musicians dug into the first theme with gusto. The serene, hymn-like passages that followed moved with gentle ebb and flow. And when the agitated statements returned later in the movement, they were given greater edge and force.

The theme and variations of the second movement is lighter fare. Pace’s playing had a plump, almost fruity tone in the many trills and frills. Kavakos answered with mesmerizing focus in the motor-rhythm variation that followed. The final of the set twinkled like a music box, and the duo’s crystal-clear rendering of the sonata’s rollicking finale left the audience wanting more.

And more they got. Kavakos and Pace returned to the stage for two sparkling encores by Fritz Kreisler, the Caprice viennois Op. 2 and Schön Rosmarin.