Saturday, 18 October 2014

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang at the Barbican Centre

Kavakos/Wang from the Circle

Given the star power of Wang, it came as something of a surprise to me that despite the balcony level not opening, there was a sparse crowd. The circle level, where I sat, was only half full, prompting a mass exodus to the empty front seats once the lights dimmed. Indeed, the Barbican centre seemed to be a rather clumsy venue for Brahm's works of lyricism, lacking the intimacy that often causes the works to glow from the inside.

The first offering from Kavakos and Wang, the G Major sonata, was a tentative affair. A beguilingly personal sonata, in which nothing is self-proclaiming and relies  upon and gentle phrasing, it requires the performers to bring out the musical ability of their respective instruments and be led not virtuosic skill, but voice. In this respect, Kavakos/Wang's rendition failed to capture this whimsically organic spirit. The first movement felt rushed in critical moments, and the rigidity of their approach was demonstrated by Kavakos' tense posture - for the first sonata, he hardly moved from the spot. While Brahms' sonatas are to be played sweetly and naturalistic, that does not mean that should linger not on phrases. The first two sonatas are pervaded with an ethereal whisper, secret and tender, almost cloying in its simplicity. Sent by Brahms to comfort Clara Schumann after the loss of her child, it uses themes from her favourite Riegenlied in all three movements. Given the private nature of this origin, and the regretful circumstances accompanying its creation, this maturely quiet wistfulness was absent from the night's performance (perhaps not surprisingly so, given the comparative youth of both  Kavakos and Wang). The success of this sonata relies heavily on phrasing, and often throughout all three movements, Kavakos seemed a little hasty and curt, curtailing themes before their natural end. These works leave both violin and piano extremely exposed - even more so in a cavernous hall such as the Barbican. During the climatic passage of the third moment, it felt very much like it was Brahms coaxing the euphoria, not Kavakos/Wang.

The A Major sonata was much improved. Both performers (Kavakos in particular) took a much freer approach, and allowed the melody to soar. Brahms' second sonata is much less troubled than the first, with a sense of real tranquility. It is also in this sonata that Brahms' extensive knowledge of choral work really shines. Accordingly, both performers took on a much stronger voice, with Wang in particular playing with sensitivity. Titled "Sonata for Piano and Violin" rather than "Violin and Piano", Brahms gives the piano a real sense of lyricism, and allows it to introduce most themes. Kavakos, increasingly comfortable, complemented this role realignment well in the Allegro amabile. In the andante tranquil, they were careful not to be over-empathetic, but perhaps more care could have been taken with the Andante theme. It was only in the third movement, however, that Kavakos seemed to truly relax and demonstrate the full scale of his remarkable ability. Taking great relish in the gregarious and stately Allegretto, Kavakos played with confidence, with a more open sound, revelling in the more structured movement. He seemed more at home with grandeur than the introversive nature of the preceding movements, and finished the first half of the recital with full voice.

Given this clear preference of style, the final D minor sonata gave us a Kavakos transformed. The change was remarkable; from the first bar, his body moved along with the music, no longer rigidly still as before. The drama of the D minor sonata gave him a yellow-brick road to follow, and he traversed it gladly. He and Wang conjured a heady sense of urgency, ripe and mature, and the voices of the instruments sang in perfect harmony at last, with both the Allegro and Presto agitato reminding us of their astounding abilities.

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