LEONIDAS KAVAKOS AND THE ATHENS STATE ORCHESTRA

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A Musical Offering and a new start

In recent years, we have often expressed reservations about the wayward way in which Leonidas Kavakos has handled the expressive frame of his artistry. In other words we have occasionally felt a certain emotional reticence and a somewhat too deliberate music making from this great artist that we felt it didn’t help to enhance the appeal of his interpretations in works he obviously loved. Nevertheless we have refused to accept that Kavakos had become a cerebral musician. Of course, intermittently, his alertness to emotional motivation became evident, as for example during a guest appearance in Athens, in which he performed the Brahms violin concerto. The concert had been launched in a disappointingly low level of involvement from soloist and conductor alike and, subsequently, came to an abrupt temporary end when the soloist’s instrument suffered the break of a chord. After some minutes of interruption the performance was nevertheless repeated in an altogether vital and incisive manner, bringing back to memory the red blooded young musician that had taken us and the world by surprise.

Anyway, no two performances of a globally important artist of Kavakos’s repute are alike and, on the evidence of his recent concert (11/05/2018), as both soloist and conductor of the Athens State Orchestra, this uniqueness can prove amply rewarding. Especially if combined with such a humanitarian joint venture as the one bearing the intrinsic title «An Offer of Music and a Musical Offering», that formed a further, special purpose for the event.

It was in a matter of days from its celebratory 75th anniversary concert, that the Athens State Orchestra hosted Kavakos in his dual capacity, the one of the universally established violin virtuoso and the other of the still rising star of the baton, roles to which he rose magnificently, at least during this  emotionally charged occasion. His choice of program proved also to demand -and thankfully acquire from all concerned- a high level of spirituality and exalted music making.

The concert was launched with Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin concerto in D minor. Its original score, supposedly for the violin,  has been lost to us, but it was subsequently arranged by the composer as his harpsichord concerto no. 1. It is on the basis of this reincarnation that it has been reconstructed as his violin concerto BWV 1052R. Kavakos’s was an unpretentious, polished but alert reading, with a deeply felt slow movement that attained welcome expressive heights without offending a suitably restrained interpretative line. The concerto was served by a body of accordingly reduced orchestral forces, with discreet harpsichord support and violins divided to either side of the virtuoso conductor. Long breath and clean articulation did not prevent the occasional temperamental sparkle of a Kavakos in a fine mood.

The elegantly dressed musician came back after the interval for the «Olympian heights», in his own words, of Anton Bruckner’s most popular but far from undemanding symphony, his Fourth, in Eflat major, WAB 104, nicknamed «Die Romantische» (the accompanying brochure lacked any information about the edition used). Tackling a Bruckner symphony at an early stage of a conductor’s career presents a huge risk and an accordingly high level of challenge. Yet, for an artist of Kavakos’s accomplishment, such a challenge can prove both uplifting and inspirational. And, anyway, in the face of his Athens interpretation, Kavakos ascertained qualities of a seasoned though not routine Brucknerian of considerable authority.

For one he possesses the secret of a natural sounding transition, so crucial for any Bruckner symphony. His Romantische unfolded in an unhurried spaciousness, leaving room for the nurturing of a wide dynamic range and building patiently and sensibly climaxes of a distinctly Brucknerian kind. But even in view of his own interpretative thoroughness, it is to the musicians’ credit that they offered such an ardent and well attuned playing, of a class and eloquence not taken for granted for this ensemble.

From the first note to the last Kavakos’s conducting possessed a well thought out inner logic, great concentration and controlled power. It proved impressive in the rapt intimacy of the second movement, with superb work in the strings, but also equally admirable interventions of woodwind and brass, building up to a discreet, atmospheric result. Splendid panache pervaded also the popular scherzo, with delicious detail and delicate moulding of melodic phrases, as well as a magical change of atmosphere for its central trio and its freches interplay among wind and brass instruments. This searching Bruckner interpretation culminated with the return of the central theme of the Symphony in its fourth movement, not just for the sake of its own triumphant impact but mainly as a starting point for the patient and meticulous preparation of the Symphony’s final climax.

Long after we had retired from the Athens Megaron Concert Hall, we retained the afterglow of this reading, possessing an invaluable sense of langer Atem that formed the fundament of Kavakos’s glowing candour and its rewards. Above all it was a genuinely shared experience for himself, his musicians and audience alike, belying vociferously a creeping prejudice against the appeal of a so called heavier repertoire to the Greek public!


[1] Dr. Kyriakos Loukakos is a music and lyric theatre critic and the Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics’ Union.