Leonidas Kavakos, the Greek virtuoso in residence at the Kennedy Center for several concerts this month, cultivates a sleek, slightly impersonal sound, in contrast to the fiery intensity of his youth. The technique behind it is a thing of wonder; the violinist digs out every detail, each note speaking clearly no matter how fast or difficult the passage. But like Joshua Bell and Gidon Kremer before him, Kavakos is more of a jeweler than a singer, and I prefer artists whose sound, all by itself, grips your soul.
That said, Kavakos’s recital with Christoph Eschenbach on Monday at the Terrace Theater was one of the finest I’ve heard from anyone this season. This was not a tossed-off affair, as so often happens when a visiting National Symphony soloist adds an extra event; rather, it was that rare instance of inspired music-making achieved through careful and thorough preparation. Eschenbach is a mercurial, sometimes slapdash pianist, while Kavakos is all controlled slickness. But the syncretic result in this instance was truly memorable.
Eschenbach has always had a special affinity for Schumann, and he and Kavakos infused the rarely heard D Minor Sonata with Mahlerian intensity. The opening seemed to grope blindly toward something imagined and then exploded with controlled fury. The third movement (marked “Quiet, simply”) starts out with gentle raindrops, followed by a series of dreamlike episodes that turn nightmarish. In these and other moments, the musical imagination (and execution) was of the highest level.
I was least taken with the opening work, Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E. Kavakos trimmed his spare sound down to something almost digital. I understand that vibrato was an occasional ornament in Bach’s time, but we’re not in Bach’s time, and Kavakos is playing with a nine-foot Steinway, not a five-foot harpsichord. Eschenbach had far more fun with his part, inflecting the two voices separately and displaying a wider range of articulation.
In Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, there was a wonderful, growling collision of motifs in the first movement, the two artists jostling for attention. But the slow movement was a disappointment because of Kavakos’s bizarre interpretation of the composer’s “molto espressivo” (very expressive) marking, again producing a cold, dead sound. Eschenbach rendered the piano part like an orchestra score — brass and timpani in the first movement, murmuring strings in the slow movement and chirping woodwinds in the scherzo.
The Schumann was the high point of the evening. Kavakos was the “head,” Eschenbach the “heart,” and here the two elements aligned perfectly. Even the overly repetitive last movement (Schumann often struggled for inspiration in his finales) was full of quirky ideas and subtle alterations. I’ve never heard this work played more persuasively, live or on recording.
Since it was a short program, the artists added two more finales as encores, Brahms’s Op. 100 and Mozart’s K. 454. Both were played cleanly, with drive and affection.
Battey is a freelance writer.