Kavakos as Brilliant as Ever in Sibelius Concerto

United StatesUnited States Liszt, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.11.2015. (BJ)

Liszt: Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem No. 6
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, Winter Daydreams

Gianandrea Noseda is a talented and charismatic conductor. In all three works on this program, he demonstrated tremendous physical vitality, and the orchestra played for the most part superbly. Yet my impressions of his work in two programs last season—and again at this concert—have left me not altogether sure whether his talent is quite on a level with the exceptionally high reputation he enjoys among the season’s guest conductors. For all his spectacular baton technique, his tendency to let his left hand mirror too slavishly what his right hand is doing—what Sir Adrian Boult used to call “the Grecian vase effect”—could pose an occasional problem for the players. Still, his communication with the orchestra–perhaps through the eyes, which is where, more than in the hands, conducting really happens–is strong enough to avoid any but the most occasional lapse in precision of ensemble.

However that may be, both the Liszt and the Tchaikovsky works emerged more generically brilliant than specifically expressive. Mazeppa is one of the less popular among Liszt’s symphonic poems, and in a reading that placed more emphasis on its militaristic than its gentler elements it was easy, despite the impact of some broadly assertive work from the brass section, to understand why. The evening’s symphony performance, on the other hand, blended virtuosity with charm well enough to illuminate the quality of a work by no means inferior in musical inspiration to the three last symphonies, which are too often regarded as Tchaikovsky’s only important contributions to the symphonic genre. Despite his inveterate penchant for negative self-criticism, the composer thought highly of No. 1, and in the light of this cogent and often exciting performance, so did I.

The gem of the evening, however, was the performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Leonidas Kavakos, who must surely be ranked among the top half-dozen violinists of our time, knows the work inside out, having recorded, on one highly illuminating Bis compact disc, both its original 1903/04 version and the familiar 1905 revision. His playing on this occasion was equally impressive in the concerto’s moments of bravura and in the softer, more intimate, and even introspective music that informs a proportion of the work’s character that is unusually high for a concerto.

Here, I must enthusiastically acknowledge, there was no cause for cavil in the support he received from Noseda and the orchestra. The brooding intensity of the first movement and the somewhat perfumed lyricism of the central Adagio di molto were both convincingly caught. And the finale, launched by crisp work from associate principal timpanist Angela Zator Nelson, fully realized the composer’s evident aim of blowing away any remaining expressive cobwebs on the way to an exhilarating conclusion.

Having in the concerto shown that both soft, slow music and loud, fast music are equally within his expressive range, Kavakos perceptively chose for an encore a piece that is consistently soft and fast. His performance of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (arranged for violin, I believe, by Ruggiero Ricci) was a marvel of understated quicksilver virtuosity.

Bernard Jacobson


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