Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall – Bach, Busoni, Shostakovich

Sonata in E for Violin and Keyboard, BWV1016

Sonata No.2 in E minor for Violin and Piano, Op.36a

Sonata in G for Violin and Piano, Op.134

Leonidas Kavakos (violin) & Yuja Wang (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 4 November, 2021
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

After eighteen months of canceled performances, Leonidas Kavakos has finally launched his three-part Perspectives series, postponed from the 2019-20 season. For this first concert, the violinist partnered with his longtime collaborator, Yuja Wang, to present a well-conceived program of exceptional difficulty and depth, pairing J. S. Bach with two more-modern works that owe a debt to the Baroque master’s approach to counterpoint and incorporate forms he used within their own melodic inventions.

The evening began with a slightly uneven performance of BWV1016 (one of the 1014-19 Six Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard). In the opening Adagio, the violin sounded thin and distant, while the equally timid piano struggled to maintain a steady pulse. The ensuing Allegro fared better, with its buoyant theme skipping merrily back and forth between the two instruments, and the situation vastly improved in the final two movements, where the duo displayed more of a shared musical instinct. The Adagio ma non tanto was wonderfully lyrical, as the violin’s silvery tone blended in an intimate, thoroughly complimentary dialogue with the piano, and the Finale was dispatched as a bravura tour de force.

Next came Ferruccio Busoni’s rarely performed Second Sonata, dating from 1900, in which he revealed his lifelong admiration for Bach. The third and final movement is a theme taken from the chorale ‘Wie wohl ist mir o Freund der Seelen’ (How blessed I am, O friend of spirits), followed by four masterly and moving variations contrasting widely in tempo and feeling. The performance featured outstanding playing, the duo in complete harmony with respect to the musical values they aimed to communicate. They played with exemplary elegance, accentuating the finer points of extraordinary beauty and power. The passion of the rapidly throbbing tarantella and above all the cumulative power of the variations were deeply impressive.

Another three-movement work completed the program. Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata is noteworthy for two distinguishing features: it marked the composer’s first use of 12-tone melodies, and the Finale is his last use of a Bach-inspired passacaglia. Beginning with a slow and somber introduction, and ending with a set of variations on a similarly sober theme, the mostly introspective work is overwhelmingly grim and foreboding, with occasional glimpses of Shostakovich’s inherently wry humor. In the outer movements, the players’ elegant and focused interplay highlighted the work’s enormous range of timbre and color. Wang exhibited an engaging combination of simplicity and strength while Kavakos carried the enormous weight of anger and despair in the bleak and uncompromising score. The frenzied central Allegretto was splendid, the music continually pushing forward and emerging as a turbulent explosion of slashing dissonances and breakneck tempos bursting with rage.

In response to vociferous bravos, the musicians offered an encore: an expressive rendition ‘Dithyramb’, the fifth and final movement of Stravinsky’s 1931 Duo Concertant, an appropriate appendix to a recital that celebrated both the old and the new in musical history.

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