Leonidas Kavakos & Dénes Várjon

Sonata for piano and violin in A, Op.30/1
Violin Sonata No.2 in E minor, Op.36a
Sonata for violin and piano in G minor
Violin Sonata No.1

Leonidas Kavakos (violin) & Dénes Várjon (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 June, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leonidas Kavakos’s recitals at the Wigmore Hall have become an annual event in the fullest sense of the term, and this programme – with almost two hours of music – was emphatically no exception. It had been judiciously planned so that two short and relatively familiar sonatas each preceded a major and less frequently heard sonata by composers who were poised on the brink of fullest maturity.

Thus the first half began with the lightest of Beethoven’s Opus 30 trilogy (1802) – an engaging work notable for the quizzical rhythmic profile of its opening Allegro, and an Adagio whose depth becomes more so through its very restraint. Qualities which Kavakos entered into fully before bringing sparkle to the modest Variations of the final Allegretto (the original finale having been pressed into service as that of the formidable ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata – whose first two movements were just months away).

It was followed by an unsung masterpiece from the close of the nineteenth-century. Although it has never lacked advocacy, Busoni’s Second Violin Sonata (1898) has long been at the periphery of the repertoire. Admittedly it remained the composer’s only lasting contribution to the chamber medium, but its persuasive combination of late-Romantic harmonic richness with a Bachian motivic rigour has few precedents and no real successors. Formally owing a debt to Beethoven’s E major Piano Sonata (Opus 109), its leisurely opening movement juxtaposes contrasting ideas to cumulative effect, before a brief but virtuoso Presto creates expectancy fulfilled by the expansive finale – its improvisatory introduction followed by Variations on Bach’s chorale ‘Wie wohl ist mir’. Palpably attuned to the divergent moods of the first two movements, Kavakos seemed a little inhibited at the outset of the finale, but he and Dénes Várjon had the measure of the variations as they built – steadily and almost symphonically – to an apotheosis of sustained grandeur, before heading into an epilogue of gentle pathos. A fine account overall, then, of a still insufficiently heard sonata – which has found a worthy champion in Kavakos.

Although the works after the interval are separated by just five years, their underlying aesthetic – as of their place within their respective composer’s output – is very different. Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1917) is his last completed work, though any trace of valediction has been eradicated by its vitality and elliptical poise – whether in the compressed sonata process pursued by the first movement, the quicksilver brilliance of the ‘Intermède’ (an intermezzo such as only Debussy could have conceived), or the rhythmically elastic exchanges between instruments in the finale – a facet to which Kavakos and Várjon brought real conviction, in what was the undoubted highlight of a persuasive performance.

It was a tribute to Kavakos’s staying power that he continued almost immediately with the First Violin Sonata (1921) by Bartók. Less rigorously controlled or as indicative of future developments as its successor from a year later, the work marks the climax of its composer’s most experimental phase, in which a free-wheeling approach to tonality is complemented by the rhythmic freedom with which violin and piano combine over the three substantial movements. The present musicians had the measure of the opening Allegro’s extremes of passion and contemplation, in which a formal process is not so much avoided as constantly frustrated, and brought a measure of tenderness to the Adagio – the rhetorical gestures of whose central section Bartók was to refine in later works. Nor did the finale lack any of the requisite drive or impulsiveness, as the aggressive confrontation between instruments gives way to an almost coerced unity during the closing stages.

A ‘fight to the finish’ of which Kavakos and Várjon remained impressively in control, and with enough in reserve for an encore in the shape of the slow movement from Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata – its ruminative and always songful lyricism bringing much-needed balm at the end of an impressive recital.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 18 June
  • Wigmore Hall

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