The Greek violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos started a two-week residency with Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night with a bang and a whimper.
The bang: a big piece on a big program. Kavakos came out and, with an intermittently big, clear tone and refreshing physical stillness, played the Sibelius violin concerto, a half-hour handful of music. The whimper: Nowhere in the printed program, apart from a program insert, did it say that Kavakos was embarking on a particular relationship with the orchestra. Indeed, the program page itself was prominently titled “Mahler Explored.” You’d think the orchestra might give a little more push to a prominent guest.
Mahler’s Fifth did conclude the program, part of Eschenbach’s extended Mahler focus with the orchestra. But the Sibelius opened it with a kind of Brucknerian suspense, the orchestra’s strings creating a dappled background like sun on leaves while Kavakos entered with a clear, clean line before biting in with a veritably cello-like sound from the G string.
The dynamic contrasts and contrasts of intensity characterized a performance that was alternately authoritative and wild. This concerto is challenging and wandering and dotted, in its sprawling first movement, with cadences that send the soloist’s bow seesawing across the strings while his fingers race though whole fistfuls of notes. Kavakos had a firm grasp of the emotional contours of the piece, but sometimes delivered gesture in lieu of precision, smearing the rapid passages or, intriguingly because probably deliberately, sounding as though he were running out of breath in a couple of the high phrases, which lost power just at moments the ear expected them to gain it.
In the past, I’ve sometimes characterized Kavakos’s restraint as diffidence. There’s no question that it’s refreshing to see a soloist confine his emoting to his instrument rather than yawing and swaying his body all over the stage. But some of that emoting, in the music, came off as calculated: The nice clean line he was capable of kept being darkened and blurred and pushed and pulled with little nudges of rubato, all of which seemed like deliberate additions rather than an organic outgrowth of the music. In the second movement, his slowness, and the covered quality to the violin’s sound, began to drag down the music, as the quality of ease began to verge on lethargy.
The lack of precision could have been a response to the orchestra, which under Eschenbach sounded willing and involved but a little messy. On the other hand, the emotional contours were largely right, even if the violinist didn’t fully land his punches, so to speak, in the final movement. The hopeful audience waited in vain for an encore.
Having been puzzled by Eschenbach’s unusual take on the Mahler Ninth in March , I was happily surprised by the warmth and robustness of the Fifth on Thursday. Yes, it was muddy in places; I had trouble finding my bearings in the exuberant fifth movement, when all the pieces of the big picture seemed to be present, like puzzle pieces, but not quite fitting cleanly together. But there were a lot of wonderful moments, too: the lovely delineation of the individual brass and wind voices at the end of the first movement; the gorgeous keening of the cellos in the second; and, after a shockingly sloppy string glissando that almost marred the beauty of the fourth movement, one of the most achingly poignant excerpts in the repertoire, a profound swell of sound, like a big, cresting ache. Eschenbach was neither histrionic nor pathetic in this big work; for the most part, he seemed to have the emotional temperature and range of this music just right.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.