United Kingdom Janáček, Schubert, Debussy, Bartók: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Yuja Wang (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.12.2017. (CS)
Janáček – Violin Sonata
Schubert – Fantasy in C D934
Debussy – Violin Sonata in G minor
Bartók – Violin Sonata No.1
They say that opposites attract. On the evidence of this recital by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, ‘they’ might be right. The introspective Greek violinist and exuberant Chinese pianist certainly refuted any preconceptions I might have had about their potential ‘incompatibility’, based on my previous experiences of their respective ‘styles’ and ‘manner’ of communicating through music.
I’d previously (at the Barbican Hall in 2014) admired Yang’s ‘characterful musical presence’ in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, and the ‘tremendous weight’ and ‘impressive impact’ of her sound, but also suggested that while the ‘immediacy of the impact was indisputable, [but] I longed also for quieter, more reflective understatement’. Conversely, when I heard Kavakos perform the Brahms concerto at the Proms this year, I remarked that ‘Kavakos eschews flamboyance for composure, turning his back on the packed Albert Hall to immerse himself’ in the music, and that while ‘some might prefer more impulsiveness, freedom and drama’, Kavakos ‘sought and found [the] contemplation and nobility’. Infamous for her sartorial extroversion, on this occasion Wang’s glitzy glamour contrasted with Kavakos’s slightly crumpled diffidence.
Musical chalk and cheese, then?
Three sonatas composed in the years immediately after the first world war dominated the programme, and the duo began with Leoš Janáček’s Violin Sonata (1914-21) – a work which sometimes seem to ‘isolate’ rather than ‘synthesise’ the violin and piano. The former’s fragments – sometimes hesitant, sometimes assertive – often whisper and float against the latter’s orchestral tremors, textures and motivic conversations.
Kavados’s long arms seem to enclose his Willemotte Stradivarius, embracing it to his body. His right elbow and wrist are held high; his elegant fingers hold the bow with the lightness of a spider’s web. In the opening Con moto he made even the most jagged of the violin’s fragments sound sweet though the tone was not without darkness and shadow. Wang’s straight back and poised shoulders exude strength and perhaps fierceness, but she showed subtlety in coaxing a folky ‘dryness’ from the Wigmore’s Steinway – at times her motifs seemed to call from a distance land.
It was not until the second movement that violinist and pianist seemed to find a shared spirit, though. The dreamy, rhapsodic Ballada suits Kavakos’s introspective leanings, and the expansive melodic lines encouraged the violinist to slip into meditative reverie, though his violin spoke with a quiet presence and beauty. The climax, marked ad lib in both parts, confirmed both a unity of spirit and a high level of musicianship, as Kavados’s fragile high E-string peak glimmered against Wang’s fading, ghostly shimmers. The sweeping, scooping up-bows and echoing trills of the Allegretto shook us from our dreams, however, as the duo danced and darted through the folky slivers, negotiating the ever-changing and complex temporal relationships expertly. In the concluding Adagio Kavakos juxtaposed ferocity and stillness; in the climactic Maestoso section, the dark richness of the G-string was interrupted by the brighter purity of the violin’s heights, above Wang’s shivering tremors. The tentative, faltering close was eerily enigmatic.
Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Minor of 1914-15 sometimes shares the dreamy elusiveness of Janáček’s sonata, and the decision by Kavados to begin the gently cascading theme of the Allegro vivo with a harmonic signalled a striving for wistfulness and abstraction which became more evident in the slower central section of the movement. But, despite its whimsical pensiveness, Debussy’s music has strongly defined, and varied, character. Though Kavados’s G-string melody in this central episode was silky, I missed a certain ‘smokiness’ and the strength that underpins the arcs and pushes the music forward to the reprise of the opening.
The arabesques of Intermède were eerie rather than quirkily playful. I had a vision of mechanical toys coming to life at night and – in the airily articulated staccato whirl of the middle section – engaging in a strange ballet, before Kavakos’s dulcet high double-stopped thirds exerted their hypnotic effect and lulled the toys back to sleep. Neither player seemed quite to tap into the jazzy sensuality of the slow episode at the heart of the Finale: Très animé, nor the exuberant joy of the cadenza-like flourishes which precede the coda, though the clarity and crispness of Kavakos’s wildly circling gigue and Wang’s punctuating chords was impressive, and they stirred up the energy to a whirlwind close.
It was Bartók’s First Violin Sonata (1921) that saw the two musicians harness their virtuosity to astonishingly impassioned, driven musical expression of striking mutuality. The beauty of Kavakos’s sound tempered the astringency of Bartók’s elusive arguments, and in the Allegro appassionato the violinist balanced energy with composure, gritty roughness with crystalline purity. At the opening, Wang conjured huge washes – tidal waves – of colour which never deluged Kavakos’s focused, assertive theme, the grainy texture of which was illuminated by flashes of brightness as his bow carved the air with whip-like speed. The weight of Wang’s accompaniment was carefully and judiciously measured, the left hand in particular placed with care.
The ‘night music’ of the Adagio suggested secrets untold and anger repressed. Wang’s low chimes resonated quietly but darkly, while Kavakos’s dissonant double-stops were surprisingly sensuous. In the Allegro molto Wang finally unleashed the full power of the Steinway; I’m sure I could feel the Wigmore platform vibrating and rumbling, though the thunder was irradiated by lightning streaks. The temporal nuances were perfectly attuned, evidence of both meticulous preparation and musical intelligence, and the growing pressure of the underlying accelerando was almost terrifying, as the final movement burned to a fiery conclusion. Kavados and Wang may herald from landscapes of different temperament but they clearly inhabit the same musical world.
If there was any sense of ‘odd bedfellows’ in this concert, it was the presence of Schubert’s C Major Fantasy amid the early twentieth-century sonatas. Each player articulated the musical details meticulously and the technical challenges – not inconsiderable – were effortlessly despatched. There was an equality between the two voices and an over-riding sense of restraint. When the Fantasy was premiered by Josef Slavek in Vienna in 1828, a Allgemeine musikalische reviewer wrote, ‘A new Fantasia … made no appeal of any sort. It would be a fair judgment to say that the popular composer has frankly gone off the rails here.’ I wouldn’t go so far, not least because of the elegance of Wang’s pianism and the pristine grace of Kavakos’s playing. But, despite the musical accomplishment, I remained puzzled as to how the Fantasy contributed to the ‘argument’ of the programme.
This recital marked the end of a European tour which has seen Kavakos and Yang perform in the Philharmonie Luxembourg, at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag, Antwerp’s Blauwe zaal and Geneva’s Victoria Hall, at the Concertgebouw and the Musikverein in Amsterdam (December 14), and in Rome’s Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia. They concluded their travels with an encore by Szymanowski: ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’ from Mythes. I hope that they take to the road again soon.