String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51/2
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Gewandhaus-Quartett [Frank-Michael Erben & Conrad Suske (violins), Olaf Hallmann (viola) & Jünjakob Timm (cello)]
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 30 October, 2013
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall & Barbican Hall, London
The last concert in the current Leipzig Gewandhaus residency in the Barbican Centre was prefaced by the Gewandhaus-Quartett’s performance of the second of Brahms’s Opus 51 String Quartet in the new Milton Court. The auditorium’s dark-brown wooden interior is a bit like being inside a venerable string instrument, and the acoustic is rich, close and very lively. It played up to the 200-year-old ensemble’s sound, notably more homogenous and dense than the orchestra’s currently more lucid, terraced dynamic – three of the four players are section principals – and their performance underlined Brahms’s deference to the Beethoven ideal, rather more pronounced in this work than in the first of the set. The sonority, especially in the aristocratic third movement, gravitated towards Olaf Hallmann’s distinctive, voluptuous viola timbre, and the players’ generally pragmatic, non-showy style suited the music’s tug between regret and energy, with some astutely delivered rhythmic games in the finale.
The way in which Leonidas Kavakos inhabits a work has been much remarked on, but his playing in Brahms’s Violin Concerto was on another level altogether. With that rare artistry that conceals art, he became the music, and Riccardo Chailly and the LGO could not have fielded a leaner, fitter symphonic adversary – the quality of timbre in the first bars made you hear them afresh. And from Kavakos’s first entry – one of Brahms’s most purely operatic gestures, it presents the soloist in all his unequivocal glory, like a peacock in full display – he had the audience in his grip. The stature he gave his opening gambit defined the stature of the concerto as a whole, the connectivity flowing through orchestra, soloist and conductor was pure electricity. It made you wonder how often in live performance you are rewarded with such affinity – certainly for me still in single figures – and this was one of those occasions. And, for such a naturally intelligent musician, Kavakos’s showmanship was phenomenal and completely uncalculated. His immense tonal reservoir allied to his fine calibration of weight and pressure took us from wild gypsy bravura to extremes of lyrical tenderness, and just a nanosecond glance between him and the leader or between Chailly and him guaranteed a vertiginous but secure ensemble that coursed through the musicians, everyone at the top of their form.
In the first movement, Kavakos gave the emerging of the ravishing second theme a particularly strong sense of narrative growth that was entirely in tune with Chailly’s brilliantly moulded overview, and Kavakos even found room for suggestions of dalliance in Joachim’s majestic cadenza. He went on to complement the lean, passionate urgency of the oboe’s solo in the Adagio, transforming it with matchless improvisatory grace; and his exuberance in the gypsy finale was backed up by Chailly’s vigorous honouring of Brahms’s rude deconstruction of the oompah, with thrilling results.
The impact made by the Concerto lingered over the interval, to the extent that the cool E minor breeze at the start of the Fourth Symphony was both sobering and elevating. All the elements that have marked Chailly’s approach to Brahms – the substance, beauty and cleanness of sound, the leaning forwards on tempos that underpins his outline of each Symphony, and his unswerving certainty of the composer’s profoundly historical and thoroughly modern importance – were there in abundance. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the unencumbered, remote perfection of the strings’ opening theme or for the miraculous liberation of the playing in the third movement, with some impressively nimble work from the double bassists and he invested the inevitability of the music’s trajectory towards the finale closing with majestic power. If ever a monument had energy, mobility and nobility, it was here. A Hungarian Dance was offered as an encore.