February 9, 2011

Violin Virtuoso Graces Bailey Hall

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On Thursday, February 3, Cornell University’s Bailey Hall was humbled by one of the world’s preeminent violinists. Having achieved this status through standout readings of Ravel’s Tzigane and the neglected works of Enescu (ECM, 2003) as well as his award-winning violin concertos of Sibelius (Bis, 1992) and Mendelssohn (Sony Classics, 2009), Athens-born Leonidas Kavakos has charted sonic territory that is as richly varied as his programming. And therein lies the rub. With such a hefty cache of threads from which to spin his musical webs, a musician of Kavakos’s stature is faced with an unenviable amount of repertory choices. In a day and age where contemporary music is undergoing a deep shift into uncertainties and sometimes less-than-successful pastiches, this means a mounting challenge to give voice to underrepresented composers. Enter the music of Lera Auerbach, from whose Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46 Kavakos and his accompanist, Enrico Pace, offered a hefty selection at the heart of the evening’s performance.

Born in 1973 on the Siberian border and sufficiently endowed with the gifts of her predecessors (Schnittke comes to mind) and contemporaries (particularly Kancheli and Silvestrov) alike, Auerbach has emerged as one of her generation’s most influential voices. She is also an accomplished poet in her native Russia, where her writings have already been incorporated into literary curricula as required reading. To be sure, the Preludes speak with a grammar uniquely their own. That being said, listeners of the parenthetically aforementioned may find that her motivic paths bear a few well-worn footprints. This does nothing, however, to obscure what is already a rather obscured aesthetic.

Since composing her first major opera at age 12, Auerbach has been no stranger to the complexities of vocal representation, but negotiating the “voice” of a single violin set against its most intimate partner, the piano, is a poetry in and of itself. Hers is what I call “postludinal incidentalism.” Put another way, the music plays like a requiem for one who has yet to pass, and nowhere more so than in the fleeting march that was the “Prelude No. 1”. Its metronomic beginnings and breathy ascensions set the tonal contrasts for all that follows. The strident yet haunting pianism of “No. 18” unraveled what Kavakos could not with merely four strings at his disposal. From the long sustains of “No. 20” to the pseudo-romanticism of “No. 12,” each contributed a potent cell to the overall kaleidoscopic effect. Also intriguing were the morose etudinal scales of “No. 16” and the turbulent Bach deconstruction built into “No. 24.” At some moments deliberately contrived and at others innocent, the Preludes have been called a Well-Tempered Clavier for the 21st century. In the present context, however, one was hard-pressed to hear it that way.

Auerbach is a force to be reckoned with and one well adjusted to discerning contemporary audiences. Her plurivocity engulfs, but never dominates. Unfortunately, much of her subtleties were lost in the shadows of the program’s opener. The origins of Prokofiev’s weighty Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80 in Stalinist Russia tend to mask this admittedly despondent work with associations of darkness and self-deprecation. Such interpretations are only underscored by the composer, who himself characterized the piece’s most recognizable motifs as “wind passing through a graveyard.” In the hands of our consummate duo said wind stilled in the eye of a storm that one could see but could not hear. Dividing its four movements down the middle, we encountered two Andantes paired with brisker counterparts. The funereal mood of the first struggled to keep its eyes open in the glare of Kavakos’s glistening trills. Every double stop felt like an internal conversation over Pace’s Debussean tintinnabulations. The ensuing Allegro was pulled off with gusto. Staggered rhythms and “crunchy” arpeggios popped with requisite verve while a seesawing motif on the D and A strings seemed to caress the violin’s very architecture. And as the horsehairs went flying, I began to see the music not as a conservation so much as conversion — from sentiment to statement and from thought to action. The undulations of the third movement were accentuated by highs that glowed like hand-blown glass. So angelic was this passage that the final movement came almost as a shock, such that one now looked back on the Andantes as unrecoverable catharses. It also harbored an unexpected moment of whimsy when the sheer power required for this finale loosened a peg. As Kavakos stopped to retune, he graciously quipped, “It happens sometimes. We’ll try again.” And try again they did, giving an even sharper rendering the second time around. Amid more dangling horsehairs and gypsy flair, the duo finished with panache.

If any connection was to be drawn between the Prokofiev and Auerbach, it was that both were dark in theory but in practice danced on lines of light. Which leads us to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 that concluded the program. Known as the Kreutzer, it was premiered in 1803 by its dedicatee, violinist George Bridgetower, with the composer at the piano. A subsequent disagreement prompted an outraged Beethoven to rededicate the piece to Rodolphe Kreutzer, the finest violinist of the time who found the sonata “outrageously unintelligible” and refused to play it. That the sonata continues to bear his name is ironic at best, for the sonata is anything but unintelligible. If the first half of the evening’s performance felt ill-chosen, perhaps it seemed even more so in light of the “wow” factor that Kavakos and Pace unleashed through Beethoven. From the first strains of the introductory cadenza, it was clear that we were on another plane entirely. At the risk of overindulging in my descriptives, here was a composer who genuinely peered into the hearts of his instruments in an attempt to notate their very souls. Where Prokofiev and Auerbach seemed to be mashing the violin and piano together in the hopes that enough visceral experiences would result to make the music worthwhile (which they did in their own ways), Beethoven carefully wove these elements into a complementary braid. Wherever the variations ran, we could be sure that they never left their thematic mothers’ sights. And where the high notes from the Russians scintillated, here they trembled with a profound sense of emotional upheaval. This constant negotiation of tension and release worked its way into every pellucid afterthought to spill from Pace’s fingers. The Andante unfolded in a slow skip. With protracted exuberance, every playful rumination from the violin found its better half in the keyboard. Kavakos’s delicacy made of these vignettes a powerful window into the imagination of experience. Pace had us at A major with the powerful statement that signaled the final Presto and which worked through its anticipations with fortitude to the very end.

In spite of his reputation for symphonic density, as a chamber composer Beethoven clearly wanted his musicians to breathe. In the case of the Kreutzer, he accomplished this by placing strategic gaps throughout the score. These gaps allowed the musicians plenty of space in which to spread their wings together. This unity made all the difference and stretched a fine canvas upon which to brush in a lovely encore in the form of the “Garden Scene” from Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing suite.

Kavakos’s instrument, an “Abergavenny” Stradivarius dating from 1724, was more than a mere vehicle for the music and provided a bird’s-eye view of the landscapes at hand. Sitting in the second row as I was, I could hear its every vulnerable detail. Its raspy highs and liquid lows coalesced into a formidable sound palette. Sadly, the same could not be said for the Steinway from which Pace struggled to elicit anything more than a muddy blur of sound, not to mention that anyone with perfect pitch would have cringed at the tuning problems in the lower register. Add to this an unpleasant squeak in the sustain pedal and one begins to recognize Pace’s talents all the more for having poured on his meticulous attentiveness undeterred. The latter two issues, at least, were rectified during intermission, after which the Beethoven shimmered with noticeably brighter syncopations and octaval consonance.

Pace is himself a native of Rimini, hometown of famed director Federico Fellini, who once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” And perhaps nothing could better sum up the effect of this concert. Each piece inhabited such a distinctly “linguistic” space that it seemed the audience was hard-pressed to test its fluency across the board. At the very least, one can only admire the program’s adventurous spirit, even if it did not quite work as a whole. On the other hand, it did give us the audible resumes of two performers at the peaks of their careers.

All in all, it was a fine way to spend an evening, though I think that everyone must have walked away with mental tethers trailing behind to an equally disparate selection of moments. As for this listener, though Kavakos is certainly a fiery performer when he wants to be, I left taking comfort in his conservatism, which continues to provide a valuable antidote to the histrionics of a Gidon Kremer or the technical favoritism of an Anne-Sophie Mutter. His restraint indicates a mind for which music is primary and its effects open to the indeterminacies of life itself.

Original Author: Tyran Grillo