Kavakos Delivers Compelling Sibelius Violin Concerto

Leonidas Kavakos
San Francisco Classical Voice

Straight-backed and devoid of any gestural flourishes that many soloists employ, his shoulder-length black hair framing a sober, long face and dark-rimmed glasses, the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos seemed the antithesis of the virtuoso showman at Davies Hall on Friday, Nov. 13. Appearances were not deceiving.

In a striking and original interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, Kavakos stripped this extravagant work of all indulgences to deliver a lean, purposeful, and deeply absorbing performance.  The sense that something different was about to happen was apparent right away.  From a quietly insistent opening phrase to an early cadenza, Kavakos staked out his territory with a woody, fibrous tone – reminiscent of a fine baritone’s probing, amber-toned voice – that seemed to stride into the score instead of sailing across its swooping surfaces.    

A propulsive and coherent account of the concerto flowed from there. The work’s lyrical, long lines and furioso fiddling, which can be milked for self-contained effect, took on a distinctive character here. Kavakos honed in on each measure and phrase attentively and made them connect to a larger whole. Everything, from tightly furled trills to octave-spanning excursions, was finely wrought. The long and emotionally layered first movement, in which orchestra and soloist sometimes move in transverse directions, came off with an animating tension. 

Kavakos worked some wondrous dynamic effects in pensive, introspective echoes. He was extrovert and introvert both, a fully developed musical character.  

The thumping cadence of the final movement invites a kind of broad, folk-dance humor. The program note referenced Donald Tovey’s description of this Allegro as “a polonaise for polar bears.” Neither Kavakos nor MTT fell for the easy, obvious romp. Right to the end, through thickets of double stops and a minefield of sturdily accented rhythms, the concerto held its decisive, singular footing.

There was more big sound in the final movement. But volume, bright timbres, and forward-thrusting tempos didn’t add up to a fresh or especially dramatic account of the piece. This Schumann performance received the respectful but slightly distant response it had earned. Maybe, when it’s been sculpted into a finished recording, there will be more than met the ear on Friday night.  

Read the rest of the review here