Emanuel Ax & Leonidas Kavakos at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven Violin Sonatas

Sonatas for Piano and Violin – in A, Op.12/2; in E flat, Op.12/3; in A, Op.30/1; in C minor, Op.30/2

Leonidas Kavakos (violin) & Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 1 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasI was glad that Leonidas Kavakos played an encore, even though in doing so he reduced his fine partner Emanuel Ax to the status of an accompanist. I was glad, not because he deserved an encore, but because at last he showed that he could play the violin well if he had a mind to.The best one can say about the Greek violinist’s performances earlier in the evening was that, following the A major Sonata, at least each subsequent one improved on its predecessor. But looking back over the four Beethoven sonatas he played, I can think of hardly a violin phrase I would want to bring home and cherish to my bosom.

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentWhile Ax twinkled at the keyboard, Kavakos delivered Opus 12/2 with stooped posture and eyes focused on the score. He reacted to Ax’s excellent playing, rather than taking the initiative, and timidly produced a wretched apology for a tone. As soon as the duo embarked on Opus 12/3, Kavakos seemed more confident. He stood up straighter, took his eyes off the copy periodically, opened his shoulders and rotated his torso as string players do when they know where they are going, and began to wield the bow to some purpose. His tone still left much to be desired, however, and Beethoven’s humour passed him by, while Ax played as if he might have had some fun in the finale with a more responsive partner.

After the interval, Kavakos again improved, this time in Opus 30/1, with reasonable phrasing in the Adagio molto – but where was the espressivo demanded by Beethoven? Why did he drift off the note at the end? Much of the violin tone was edgy and attenuated: when Kavakos applied any pressure on the E string, what emerged was verging on the squeaky. Some passages in the final variations were actively unpleasant.

In Beethoven’s most dramatic sonata, the C minor, Ax led off each movement with model playing and Kavakos at last seemed to engage with the musical argument to a degree. It was not great duo-playing, and the scherzo lacked wit, but at least it did a certain amount of justice to this masterpiece. In the Adagio cantabile Kavakos achieved some breadth of phrasing and a measure of decent tone.

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