Six sonatas for solo violin

Leonidas Kavakos | Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos shot to international fame in 1991 when the Swedish firm BIS released his recording, the first-ever, of the original version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. To general surprise, the disc shot through the roof of the classica lbest-seller charts.

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos shot to international fame in 1991 when the Swedish firm BIS released his recording, the first-ever, of the original version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. To general surprise, the disc shot through the roof of the classica lbest-seller charts.

Kavakos's most recent recording for BIS, issued earlier this year, was of the six sonatas for solo violin by the Belgian Eugÿne Ysaÿe. It was the third of these understated gems that formed the centrepiece of his Wigmore Hall recital this week, in the first of three programmes illustrating "The Demon Violin". There's nothing particularly demonic about Bach's solo-violin music, other than the demands it makes on the player's technique. But this first recital was intended to present the violin as a polyphonic instrument, and so who better than Bach to begin with?

Kavakos's Bach (in this instance, the First Sonata and Third Partita) is bright, clear, highly articulate and sprightly: his tempi were all on the fast side. The speed brought out the startling modernity of the Preludio of the Partita: with its repeated, quasi-minimalist patterns, it sounded almost like a ride in one of John Adams' fast machines. The downside of such élan was a momentary loss of rhythmic precision in the "Gavotte en rondeau", but that, and a single-figure handful of slightly sour notes, were the only technical blemishes in the entire evening: Kavakos is a superb player. What I did miss was some good ol' fashioned rubato - just a little more rhythmic give-and-take would have let Bach breathe more easily.

The six sonatas that form Eugÿne Ysaÿe's Op. 27 arose in 1924, after his friend Joseph Szigeti had remarked that Bach seemed to have frightened composers away from the solo violin. Ysaÿe's response was to sit down and, in the course of a single 24-hour session, sketch out all six works. The second of them, subtitled "Obsession", is a favourite pairing with the Bach Third Partita, which it quotes in its opening bars; then the real obsession locks in, as the Dies irae pervades Ysaÿe's extraordinarily inventive polyphony. These profound sonatas are deservedly part of every violinist's repertoire; the mystery is why no one investigates the rest of Ysaÿe's output - among the other works awaiting attention are eight concertos.

The Five Pieces by Greek-American Theodore Antoniou (b. 1935), here receiving their UK premiere, were powerful, stark, commanding, at their most moving in a Lamento that, rich in harmonics, evoked the keening of the old women of Byzantium. Antoniou's score, a major addition to the solo-violin repertoire, calls on every technique in the violinist's armoury - except, it seems, left-hand pizzicato. But we got plenty of that in Paganini's dazzling Introduction and Variations on "Nel cor non più mi sento", where Kavakos's pyrotechnics first drew disbelieving chuckles from the audience and then a huge roar.

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