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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos in NY

Music review
by Stephen Kaye
Fri Feb 10th, 2017

Yuga Wang

Feb 8 - Yuja Wang joined violinist Leonidas Kavakos for a sold-out concert at the David Geffen Hall Wednesday where we heard a yin-and-yang dualism that was fully intentional.  While we are not privy as to how these two different temperaments came together, we can admire the conception, as well as the result.

Kavakos is a quiet, somewhat shy player, known for his elegance and exactness.  He is the opposite of assertive, flashy or exuberant, all of which qualities can be attached to Yuja. They are doing a 13 concert tour in as many cities beginning January 29 in Italy; then to Germany, Madrid; Stockholm, Munich (Feb. 5); Strathmore, PA on the 7th; NY on the 8th; Seattle on the 10th; then three concerts in California finishing on the 13th.  That’s 13 concerts in 16 days, a formidable feat. But this is a formidable couple.  To say they will go far is now a ludicrous afterthought.

I felt the role of Kavakos was to keep Yuja under a tight rein—to restrain her excesses. It worked.  Of the four pieces they played on Wednesday night, I thought the Fantasia in C Major by Schubert was perhaps the most memorable Schubert I have ever heard. One doesn’t think of Yuja as a Schubert player, but here she captured the fullness and the ultimate spirit of the piece.  It moved from the haunting, mystical to the magisterial with a violin always commenting a slightly different message.  But they were very much together.

Their opener was Janacek’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1914-15 and 1921), the dates indicating it was reworked after WWI. It has one foot in the old tradition and one in modernism and is a solid piece of music.  It has much to offer, and it introduced us to the style of the concert:  the piano and violin would often go their separate ways.  They would not be playing in sympathy with each other as much as they would be playing as each sympathized with the music, but they very much respected each other—they were in no way competing. It worked.

After the usual costume change by Yuja, we heard this exceptional pair play Debussy’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1921, his third sonata but his only one for these two instruments).  This is a studied piece that gathers many strands of Debussy’s long life.  It feels overworked and sometimes difficult.  One could feel the reins holding Yuja back, while Kavakos cantered gently on a loose rein.

The final piece on their program was Sonata No 1 for Violin and Piano by Bartok (1921).  In the first movement, the violin was soft and dreamy while the piano was brilliant.  The scores were completely different—as the program notes say, there is no thematic overlap. I thought that edginess and angularity, traits I expect in most Bartok, was missing.  Kavakos softened the edges.  The piece is a foray into the modern with moments of tenderness, introspection, conflict, and excitement in a sea of dissonance.  It may be unfair to compare the performance with that recorded with David Oistrakh and Stanislav Richter available on YouTube (audio posted below), but that one is likely to remain a standard which brings out the close connection between the instruments that was not evident at our concert.  Nevertheless, it was exciting to hear two super talents deal with this complex piece of music.  The audience loved it.