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Leonidas Kavakos undertakes another ‘sonata project’ recording with Decca

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of Universal Music Group

Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos made his debut on the Decca/Universal Music Classics label in January of 2013 with a major undertaking. His first recording was a three-CD set of the ten sonatas for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven. His accompanist was Italian pianist Enrico Pace, with whom he had performed the full cycle in recital at the 2012 Salzburg Festival.

On April 15 Decca released Kavakos’ third recording, this time covering the complete sonatas by Johannes Brahms. This is a far more modest collection, since Brahms composed only three of them: Opus 78 in G major, Opus 100 in A minor, and Opus 108 in D minor. However, Brahms also contributed the Scherzo movement to the “F-A-E Sonata,” a collaborative project dedicated to the violinist Joseph Joachim, whose personal motto was frei aber einsam (free but lonely). The other contributing composers were Robert Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich, but Kavakos’ recording includes only Brahms’ movement. However, this is still a generous disc (at a little over an hour and fifteen minutes); and it concludes with an “encore track” of Brahms’ famous “Lullaby” (Opus 49, Number 4) with Kavakos playing the vocal part. His accompanist for all selections is Yuja Wang.

However highly I may think of Kavakos (and I do), I would like to pause over that last sentence. Wang is a great favorite in my home town of San Francisco. This season she performed not only with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) but also with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when they visited Davies Symphony Hall. Inevitably, she plays finger-busting technical challenges by the likes of Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff, switching over to Art Tatum transcriptions for her encores. Fortunately, she devoted one of her SFS appearances to Beethoven’s Opus 58 concerto in G minor, the fourth, which I have always considered an “acid test” for any concert pianist. In my own humble opinion, she passed that test with flying colors; so I was particularly curious as to how she would work with Kavakos on the highly nuanced piano parts for the three Brahms sonatas.

I am happy to report that I was as pleased with this side of her Brahms (she had already taken on the more technically flamboyant Opus 35 Paganini variations on a Deutsche Grammophon recording) as I had been with her approach to that Beethoven concerto. Furthermore, it is clear from this entire recording that Wang is as much in her element with the intimacy of chamber music selections as she is with those bombastic concertos she seems to relish.

It would thus be fair to say that this recording is very much a meeting of two minds, both of which take their Brahms as seriously as they take him passionately. While Brahms was not shy about raising his own intensity level (as in the Presto agitato of Opus 108), all three of these sonatas tend, for the most part, to be introspective without the slightest suggestion of self-indulgence. One might say that Kavakos approaches most of what Brahms wrote with a rhetorical stance through which melodic content is coaxed, rather than declaimed; and Wang stands beside him, always matching his delivery with judicious selection of both dynamics and articulation.

Kavakos enjoyed a 2014 GRAMMY nomination for his Beethoven recording. The fact that he did not walk off with the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance award last January was one of my greatest disappointments (even if it was not a great surprise from a “music business” point of view). This time around I am wise enough to recognize that Brahms is rarely (ever?) “GRAMMY material.” Nevertheless, Kavakos is clearly as serious about his Brahms as he was about his Beethoven. Anyone who has not yet come to appreciate the many subtle beauties in these pieces will find this recording an excellent way to become better informed.

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