Leonidas Kavakos/Péter Nagy: Stravinsky/Bach (ECM New Series 1855)



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

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mirrors or two sides of the same coin? This electrifying album by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy answers the question: neither. Stravinsky was indebted to Bach, as so many who put pen to staves ever will be, and explored the Baroque master’s architectures to the very end—even working, the story goes, on Bach transcriptions on his death bed. Yet the Russian iconoclast accomplished a remarkable something that set him apart. Unlike so many before him, he did not shine his light through Bach’s prism but rather shined Bach’s through his own.

Stravinsky’s crucible in this regard was at its hottest in the Duo concertant (1931/32). One of two pieces written for violinist Samuel Dushkin (this for violin and piano, the other his 1931 Violin Concerto), it was not in a format the composer favored at the time but one he nonetheless reconciled through neoclassical rigor. Oscillating between the earthly and the mythological, the piece its composer called a “musical versification” finds unity in gradually joining the two. The first and last of its five movements—the Cantilène and the Dithyrambe—bear mysterious nomenclature. The one blossoms from a pianistic blush to an overpowering charge from the bow. The other drips with lachrymose quality, suspended high above Olympus casting threads to mortal hearts down below. Between them is another dyad, this of two “Epilogues” of friction and protraction in turn. And with them is the sprightly Gigue, one of Stravinsky’s finest moments, played here with integrity.

What sets Kavakos’s playing apart is his ability to be at once fluid and sharp, a quality that lends itself well to the above but also to the below, for in the Partita No. 1 in B minor that follows we hear exactly this contradiction at play. Although two centuries separate these works, Bach’s solo violin masterpiece feels remarkably present in this rendering. Kavakos gives the almighty Allemande a stately treatment, beginning with it a series of four movements and their faster “Doubles.” The first of the latter reveals barest tuning issues in Kavakos’s instrument, but these are quickly brushed away by the Corrente, which he plays with especial care, in the process exploiting the record’s engineering at full potential. The Sarabande likewise unfolds in its dance of blade and water toward the final Tempo di Borea and its Double, by which the music reaches a cavernous interior filled with stalagmites pontific.

The program returns to Stravinsky with the 1933 Suite Italienne for violin and piano. Based on his ballet Pulcinella, it proves the glistening counterpart to the Duo concertant, the spring to its thaw. The affirmation of its introductory motives barely hints at the fiery Tarantella which is the piece’s prime turn—a ball of yarn expertly unraveled. Kavakos’s hefty double stops nourish their flames on Nagy’s pointillist sparks. The folk-like Scherzino is another highlight and sets up the Minuet and Finale with authorial flourish.

From these concentrations we return once more to Bach, whose Sonata No. 1 in G minor reveals further affinity. From the cautious first half to the dawn-like awakening of the third movement and into the forward thinking of the final Presto, it develops itself like one long proclamation—slowed here and sped up there—until it glows.

Those thinking of buying this album for ECM’s treatment of the Bach will want to check out Holloway and Kremer’s versions first. In any event, the Sonatas and Partitas will always overshadow their interpreter. For the Stravinsky? Look no further.

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.