Leonidas Kavakos/Péter Nagy: Ravel/Enescu (ECM New Series 1824)


Maurice Ravel/George Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos violin
Péter Nagy piano
Recorded March 2002 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The phenomenally talented Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, one of the finest of his generation, is joined here by Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy for their debut ECM program paralleling Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and his underrated contemporary, George Enescu (1881-1955). Although the two studied and performed together, Enescu was more widely known for his gifts as violinist and teacher (Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Grumiaux were among his distinguished pupils) than as composer. Yet in the latter role he showed immense fortitude and an inventive interest in the folk music of his native Romania. His sadly overlooked Impressions d’enfance, op 28 (1940) is a revelation. Through a series of redolent images, each of its ten impressions, replete with all manner of programmatic effects, recreates a compelling story of remembrance. Titles such as “Brooklet at the Far End of the Garden,” “Cricket,” and “Storm Outside, in the Night” provide just enough descriptive information to immerse ourselves in their distinct atmospheres. Such cues ensure that the fragments of youth remain bound to the present by reflection—thematized, if you will, through the act of performance. The violin constantly doubles itself, as if trying to make its voice heard in this regard, while any lingering innocence fades into the more soluble fears of adulthood. Enescu’s better-known Sonata No 3, op 25 (1926) on popular Romanian themes receives an equally impassioned treatment. It is a folk-infused space in which dances exist only as memories, dissolving into blurs of skin and cloth. And though their spirit clearly animates the powerful final movement, it is in the second—marked, aptly, Andante sostenuto e misterioso—where the respective skills of the musicians become clearest. Where Nagy feels smooth, ceramic, Kavakos glistens with the dull sheen of wetted metal. Like a song heard through the trees, their combined forces entice as much as they perplex.

Bookending these standard-setting renditions are two major works of Ravel. The Sonate posthume (1897) sustains the graceful delicacy he is known for. As I listen, the leaves are just beginning to change outside. And so the music becomes a looming tree, its branches splayed like a frozen explosion, every gust of wind playfully recorded on strings and keys. Throughout this piece, the piano takes charge in introducing thematic changes, from which the violin may leap in a series of interpretive gestures. The two are given clear separation, as if to draw further attention to their courtship. On the other side of the coin is Tzigane (1924), Ravel’s singular self-styled rhapsody. The title—a generic French term for “gypsy”—refers more to an exotic ideal than to any specific motif. Its rousing introductory solo is one of the defining moments of violin literature, while its high-pitched acrobatics and virtuosic lines give Kavakos plenty of opportunities to show us the scope of his tonal breadth. This is certainly of the most well-balanced recordings of this piece (at least in its chamber form) one is likely to find.

The works of both composers are undoubtedly interactive. Their melodies are like fleeting glimpses that nevertheless burn themselves into the mind. Through the act of recall, we flesh out those images with our own pigments. It is for this reason that we cannot simply label such music as “impressionistic” and call it a day. That is, of course, unless see impressionism for what it is: not a vague, insubstantial view that can only been appreciated from afar, but rather an art of potent language that paints itself in the viewer’s mind. It is memory incarnate. Whereas in the photorealism of certain composers we find ourselves with relatively little room to explore, here we encounter endless space through which to run without fear. We can trust in this music. The piano becomes the paper upon which the violin may inscribe its audio diary. Impressionism writes the same story, with one crucial difference: though we may hear the nib scratching across the surface, we see only the plumed quill writing its mirror message in the air.

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