Review: When the Philharmonic Applauds the Soloist
Without interplay from the musicians, Leonidas Kavakos found tension in his own playing in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.
By Oussama Zahr
After the musicians of the New York Philharmonic finished Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto on Thursday night, they did something they don’t usually do: They applauded the soloist. With a violinist on the order of Leonidas Kavakos, that reaction felt justified. He is a wonder. The music flowed out of him like a river — big, glistening and unobstructed, but also tasteful in its frictionless subtleties.
Shostakovich, under the watch of Soviet authorities and brought to heel at Stalin’s pleasure, completed the concerto in 1948 but, presumably fearing retribution for failing to glorify the nation and its people, shelved it until after Stalin’s death in 1953. The work is constructed as a suite of movements. It opens with a character piece, a murkily colored Nocturne that lives in the Upside Down of Chopin’s genre-defining works for piano, and reaches a climax in a Baroque-derived Passacaglia, at once august and austere, that leads into a fiendish five-minute cadenza for the soloist.
Playing from memory, Kavakos cleared one hazard after another in Shostakovich’s stupendously original score. He didn’t just spin legato lines in the searching, conversational Nocturne; he expounded entire legato paragraphs in an eloquent, unbroken stream of consciousness. Shredding his way through the Scherzo, his tone was poised, even lavish. Where some violinists convey a sense of anguish in demanding passages — playing two melodies in duet or an endless seesaw of double stops — he sounded effortless. Even his harmonics had a juicy ping.