Fort Worth — When it comes to 20th-century Eastern European repertoire—the music of Bartók, Prokofiev, Enescu—Leonidas Kavakos may be the greatest violinist in the world. He played the work of these three composers, along with a sonata by Beethoven, on Jan. 31 in Fort Worth in a program presented by The Cliburn.
However, in recital with pianist Enrico Pace, who is in every respect his musical equal, the two played in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion, which is a singularly unforgiving hall. Especially for string players, somehow, every flaw is magnified, every tiny error spotlighted. That’s not fun for anybody.
In the Eastern European repertoire, the acoustics of the Renzo Piano Pavilion were less problematic than in the Beethoven. For Prokofiev, for instance, a bit of pop and hiss and some grittiness on the G string, the violin’s lowest, are not inappropriate.
In Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4 in A Minor, though, it was unwelcome.
To be clear, this was still very good playing. Of Beethoven’s 10 piano and violin sonatas, the fourth is one of the most introverted. It’s a wonderful piece of music, but does not have the immediate appeal of, say, the fifth sonata, the sunny and delightful “Spring.” Thus, it was an interesting choice with which to begin the recital and was the most unsatisfying part of the program. I want a sweeter tone for this piece than Kavakos produced. Still, his vibrato was thoughtful and phrasing was sure. Pace was more satisfactory, but pianists do not seem to have the same acoustic difficulties as violinists in this hall, either. It’s important to remember that Beethoven placed “piano” before “violin” in the sonata’s title: the piano part here is at least as important as the violin part. Usually, if there are balance issues between a violinist and a pianist, it is the pianist who is over-dominant. Here, I sometimes wished that Kavakos—who has a huge sound—would get out of Pace’s way a little more when Pace had the melodic line.
The rest of the program was excellent. Most thrilling was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. This is a darkly atmospheric piece—Prokofiev described the opening as like “wind passing through a graveyard,” and two movements of the sonata were played at his funeral. The overall effect should be disturbing, ferocious and at times hostile. This is where Kavakos and Pace did their best work. They produced magnificent intensity and the requisite ominousness without overdoing things—in the wrong hands, this piece could become a caricature. The second movement’s violent lyricism and angry beauty were just right in Kavakos and Pace’s hands. The third is an abrupt shift in mood, as the piano lays down waterfalls of delicate runs. The fourth and final movement shifts mood again, and the two musicians attack with wild abandon the folk-dance-like tune. But even the dance is somehow a tragic one, and this can be a tricky balance, which Kavakos and Pace got just right on Thursday. Kavakos has extraordinary technique; he can truly make the violin do anything he wants, and Pace can match him at every step. This is diabolically difficult music, but it’s hard to tell that from watching Kavakos and Pace play. It’s like watching a Major League Baseball pitcher throw a 100-mph fastball or seeing cyclist Peter Sagan bunny hop up a flight of stairs. They make it look pretty easy, but actually it’s close to impossible.
On the second half of the program were Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano and the showpiece of the program, George Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor. Both of these pieces use Romani folk melodies as their basis. As with the Prokofiev, these pieces, the Enescu especially, feature an array of musical and technical challenges, but Kavakos and Pace were unfazed, and this is the repertoire in which they are absolutely at home. They also seemed not to tire, playing two encores after a recital that was already over two hours long.
Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace are spectacular musicians. If I get the chance to hear them in recital again, though, I hope it is somewhere other than the Kimbell.