Kavakos and the BSO paint a stunning 'Pictures'

11.30.14
Leonidas Kavakos
The Boston Globe

By Jeffrey Gantz 

Tuesday’s BSO program brought a novelty, Bartók’s “Two Portraits,” and a pair of works from the standard repertoire, Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, “The Bear,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in the Ravel orchestration. The guest conductor and violin soloist was Leonidas Kavakos, who made his BSO debut in 2007 in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. “Two Portraits,” which the orchestra had never performed, was welcome, and the Haydn was well played. The Mussorgsky, however, was magnificent.

The two portraits are marked “Egy Idéalis” and “Egy Torz,” or “One Perfect” and “One Imperfect,” and the “one” appears to be violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom Bartók was in love, and for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1908. “Egy Idéalis” is in fact the first movement of that concerto. It seems shapeless, but Kavakos had no difficulty sustaining its long-breathed solo line and air of hushed mystery. “Egy Torz” is an orchestrated version of the last of Bartók’s Bagatelles for piano; Kavakos, laying his instrument aside, made of it a 2½-minute bear dance with galumphing timpani and grotesque winds.

Bears also dance in the Haydn, or at least the bass drone that’s heard throughout suggested as much to the work’s publisher. This interpretation was not as pointed or witty as the one Harry Christophers offered last year with the Handel and Haydn Society, but it was straightforward and satisfying, with a fleet Allegretto, an easy Minuet, and a festive Vivace Finale in which the bear, after the symphony appears to have ended, decides he’s not done.

“Pictures” lasted nearly 40 minutes, in the course of which Kavakos drew from the orchestra a kaleidoscope of timbres and colors, from the alto saxophone of “Il vecchio castello” to the tuba of “Bydlo.” (“Bydlo” also benefited from the conductor’s antiphonal seating of first and second violins.) Thomas Rolfs’s temporary instrument malfunction in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” cost Schmuyle some muted-trumpet whining, but couldn’t derail the performance. 

“The Market at Limoges” exploded with busy shoppers, then “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” saw the shambling “Promenade” tune return as a haunting threnody. Baba Yaga’s “Hut on Chicken Legs” was palpitatingly ferocious rather than simply loud, and Kavakos observed Mussorgsky’s instruction to go without pause into the concluding “Great Gate of Kiev,” so that the gate seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Bells rang from every direction, and the liturgical sections, taken slowly, actually registered as liturgy. All that was left was for Kavakos to give the luckless Rolfs a hug, and he did.