Concertos for violin and orchestra:
No.1 in B flat, K207
No.2 in D, K211
No.3 in G, K216
No.4 in D, K218
No.5 in A, K219
Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Recorded 14-17 February 2006 in Athens Concert Hall (Megaron)
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
82876842412 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 27 minutes
A recent BBC Proms concert found Leonidas Kavakos as both conductor and soloist when he added a stylishly directed Mozart symphony and a controversial performance of a Haydn Symphony to a fine reading of Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto.
The conducting side of Kavakos’s talent is important and although it may seem strange to describe the style of a violinist by referring first to the symphony which is added as a ‘fill-up’, it seems to display the essence of the performer’s personality very clearly. This Mozart 39 is an admirable performance – ideally strong, well-balanced, but with characteristics that stamp Kavakos’s personality on the music. Frequently he introduces a new theme with a slight ‘leaning’ on the initial note or two. I am reminded of Eugen Jochum’s occasional use of a musical ‘comma’ before a new phrase: always effective because used very sparingly and never disruptive. With Kavakos the easing into a melody is a little more marked but somehow he contrives to avoid disrupting the flow. I consider this to be the approach of a musician grounded in chamber music. If the leader of a string quartet used this effect it might go unnoticed but in a symphony it is immediately noticeable. In the finale it is especially evident. One could describe it as an imposition of the conductor’s personality upon the music but I do not find it disturbing. In fact there is only one real eccentricity – an awkward and puzzling pause before the return of the Minuet after the trio section.
In the concertos, this slight flexibility of phrasing is equally evident but in context it seems natural. Kavakos explores the music in a searching manner. The Third Concerto shows interesting differences compared with the recent London performance. For example the first violin entry seems slower in the recording and there are one or two minor decorations that seem to be different. Perhaps this is a measure of spontaneity.
Of the remaining works, No.1 sounds especially fresh and lively. Continuity is admirable in slow movements, which always flow well, and Kavakos has paid great attention to the composition of his cadenzas. On the other hand, some may raise eyebrows at the occasional wispy decorations at slow approaches to new themes, but the intention is imaginative.
Inevitably the excellent rival set by James Ehnes comes to mind. Ehnes also composed his own cadenzas and if pressed I must say that I prefer his (admittedly one of the reasons is that they are generally briefer and I know this is very much a matter of taste).
If potential purchasers have the opportunity of snatching moments from this set to see if they appeal, maybe they should try the beginning of Concerto No.4 and see whether the occasional relaxation of an already moderate tempo convinces: is this being subtly expressive or could it be criticised as anachronistically romantic? Then again, does the cleverly wrought cadenza to this movement outstay its welcome? In the finale of No.5 (a movement which by its very nature is slightly disjointed), I find the looseness of structure to be exaggerated by many small decorations but others may delight in them. Throughout the set there may be reason for surprise at so many embellishments, but they are done well and Kavakos is fully aware of when it is correct to use long grace-notes.
Ehnes’s recording of the concertos (filled up by shorter works for violin and orchestra) is very recent and is the obvious challenger, being also on two discs with the soloist directing. Ehnes makes fewer decorations and is more direct. Both small orchestras are excellent and sound very similar in size. Both sets of recordings are excellently well balanced. To my ear the violin tone of Ehnes’s CBC recording is sweeter whereas the Salzburg strings seem to have a very slight upper-register ‘edge’.
Interestingly the Sony release is described as ‘live recording’. I cannot hear any evidence of this whatsoever. I don’t much care how the audience noise was entirely removed; I am only too pleased to be without it.