Leonidas Kavakos & Peter Nágy at Wigmore Hall

Sonata in A for Violin and Piano, D574
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano

Leonidas Kavakos (violin) & Peter Nágy (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 December, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasLeonidas Kavakos’s recitals have now become keenly anticipated events, and there can be no doubt as to the Greek violinist being on his finest form for much of this particular evening. Admittedly Schubert’s final Violin Sonata (1817) took its time to get going: the interplay between violin and piano in the relaxed opening Allegro was attentive rather than arresting and the ensuing scherzo lacked a degree of wit, but the Andantino that ranks among the teenage composer’s most perfectly realised movements was meltingly delivered, while the finale’s motivic ingenuity was pertly underlined on the way to an animated close.

In terms of underlying expressive contrast, Janáček’s only Violin Sonata (1915) was an admirable foil. The work’s often-tortuous genesis, ranging over seven years between the initial conception and definitive realisation, hardly detracts from its being among the composer’s most spontaneous and approachable works. Kavakos had the measure of the first movement’s lyrical outpouring, the music diversifying in expression without sacrificing the rhythmic profile set out by each instrument, then brought a direct yet deeply-felt characterisation to the ‘Ballada’ which draws on the Czech ‘dumka’ in its phrasing and melodic intensity. In the bracing third movement, Peter Nágy impressed with his clarity in the hectic opening theme – the violin engaging in a relatively circumspect dialogue prior to the breathless close, before a final Adagio that grew inevitably from its cryptic initial exchanges to an understated yet heartfelt climax that marked a return to the hushed uncertainty of its opening. Arguably Janáček never quite got the formal follow-through between the Sonata’s four movements right, but such factors are of only relative importance given a performance as poised and insightful as this.

Two years ago at Wigmore Hall, Kavakos gave a strikingly assured account of Bartók’s First Violin Sonata (1921) and this performance evinced demonstrably greater conviction and insight. Less rigorously controlled or as indicative of future developments as its successor, this work yet 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 three substantial movements.

The present duo had the measure of the Allegro appassionato’s extremes of passion and introspection, throughout which an ongoing formal process is not so much avoided as continually frustrated, and brought an audible measure of tenderness to the Adagio – the rhetorical gestures of whose central section were refined (though not necessarily deepened) in Bartók’s subsequent works. Nor did the final Allegro lack for the requisite drive or impulsiveness, as an aggressive confrontation between the opposing instruments gives way to their hard-won unity during the heady closing bars – a veritable ‘fight to the finish’ during which Kavakos and Nágy were impressively in control at all times.

Kavakos had enough in reserve for two encores: one of sheer panache (Fritz Kreisler’s La gitana) that was complemented by one of soulful eloquence (the slow movement of Brahms’s D minor Sonata, Opus 108) – to conclude a recital of the highest quality.

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