Leonidas Kavakos, a frequent visitor to the District of Columbia, is the luckiest violinist in the world. For several years now, he has enjoyed a regular collaboration with superstar pianist Yuja Wang. It is unusual for a solo artist of Wang’s stature to develop an ongoing duo with an instrumentalist. The only parallel would be Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, but they have been friends since college.
Normally, Mutter or Hahn or Bell appears here with excellent accompanists, but the spotlight is always on the headliner. Tuesday at Strathmore, in a presentation of Washington Performing Arts, the script was flipped: Kavakos is of course a top-tier fiddler, but Wang is arguably the hottest pianist in the world right now.
The program was well chosen: sonatas by Bartok, Debussy and Janacek, plus the Olympian Schubert Fantasia (their encore was an arrangement of Schubert’s “Sei mir gegrüsst!”). The sonatas were temporally close but spanned a huge range of styles and textures. Especially in the Bartok and Janacek, the two instruments are like ships of different size sailing side-by-side, going in the same general direction but sharing neither passengers nor cargo. This allowed the artists to fully express their outsize personalities.
It was clear from the start that these two were unusually attuned to one another; this came, paradoxically, from their aloofness. Kavakos often played with his back to Wang, who rarely glanced at him anyway. Despite the absence of eye contact, the ensemble was well-nigh perfect, even in the treacherous Schubert.
I am a fan of Kavakos’s, but I’ve heard him play better in the past. He is all business, with no showboating; he lets his fingers do the talking rather than his face or body. His clarity in fast passages has always been a thing of wonder, and his bow produces a prodigiously wide range of colors, which was particularly important in the sonatas.
But while he was always in tune with himself, he was not always in tune with the piano. And he was fastidious to a fault in the Debussy, not taking expressive advantage of the glissandos notated by the composer. The long soliloquies in the slow movement of the Bartok were shaped with the greatest care, but they could have had more beauty of sound, the vibrato a little uneven.
Wang’s bionic fingers continue to astonish. The beginning of the Schubert, with its impossible double-tremolos, seems to open a window to eternity. I say “seems” because I’ve never heard any pianist render each note evenly, creating the whispering, crepuscular sound that Schubert imagined, without any false accents.
But like everything else she does, Wang made it seem easy. All night long, she ranged up and down the keyboard like a lioness, capturing musical prey at will. She balanced well against the violin, though things got a little too heavy in the Bartok. And her rendering of the big variation theme in the Schubert could have been simpler — better to let the emotion flower over time rather than lay it on right away.
Minor quibbles aside, this concert was an evening of the highest-level musicmaking and was one of the grand events of the season.