Leonidas Kavakos’ last concert as “An Artist in Focus” at the South Bank began with a postscript – a substantial one – to the recent Alfred Schnittke festival.
Joined by violist Antoine Tamestit and cellist Gautier Capucon, Kavakos took us toward the unknown region that is Schnittke’s String Trio of 1985 – the uncharted journey of a dying man. And the out-of-body experience was very much a shared one.
This extraordinary piece is dedicated to Alban Berg but unlike so much of Schnittke’s earlier “polystylistic” creations allusion does not teeter into impersonation. The Bergian pathos is omnipresent along with repeated recognition of Berg’s magical ability to pull torch songs (well, almost) from tone rows. One might even describe the piece as “the evolution of one last song”. It’s there at the start – short and sweet but tormented by disturbing harmony – and it’s there, transfigured, at the finish. Between times there is a defiant Michael Nyman-like ritornello attempting to shake the music from its inertia and arid near-silent bids for extinction - at one point in tremulous sul ponticello, that no man’s land near the bridge of the instruments. It’s hard to think of a performance that might better have conveyed the work’s tenuous hold on life – the cello’s seraphic harmonics towards the close seemed to come from another dimension. Out of this world in every sense.
The other two pieces on the programme were Russian, too. The Shchedrin “world premiere” Journey to Eisenstadt was brief, Kavakos and his pianist Nikolai Lugansky making a whistle-stop tour through Haydn country – including one big “surprise” and a skittishness that was always only a whisker away from subversive. Haydn all over.
But if we thought we had experienced the full extent of these talented players’ penetrating musicality we were wrong. Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor was stonking. Only Tchaikovsky could make heartache so life affirming and only players of this calibre could convey the enduring spirit behind the notes so spontaneously. The second movement variations truly sounded like inventions of the moment – astonishing ones at that - with the suave young cellist Capucon at one point inflecting a transfigured waltz so exquisitely as to make ballet dancers of all three players.
In the fizzing finale the interactive energy of the three voices was thrilling, the bold volte-face from all out euphoria to the work’s tearful beginnings transcending form to represent a truly personal tragedy. Stunning.