Kavakos, Eschenbach: A trio of bold sonatas at the Terrace

Kavakos, Eschenbach: A trio of bold sonatas at the Terrace

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Violinist Leonidas Kavakos and NSO music director—and pianist—Christoph Eschenbach present a stirring performance of a virtuoso trio of sonatas.

Kennedy Center at night.
JF Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at night. (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2015 – Continuing his two-week residency with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed an intense program of Baroque and Romantic sonatas Monday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. He was accompanied by the NSO’s music director, Christoph Eschenbach who, in addition to his conducting duties, is also a first rate concert pianist.

Monday’s program, part of the Center’s Fortas Chamber Music series, began with an intriguing approach by both musicians to J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in E major, MWV 1016. In Bach’s day, the solo violinist would have been accompanied on the harpsichord. But Mr. Eschenbach handled the keyboard chores Monday with one of the Kennedy Center’s more substantial Steinway concert grands.

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In a nod toward greater Baroque authenticity, Mr. Eschenbach strove to remain far in the background during this performance, restraining the inherent power of the Steinway to emulate, in a way, the much less powerful sound of a harpsichord. That said, he still managed to bring out the multiple voices in his part, nearly always a hallmark of this composer’s style.

For his part, Mr. Kavakos also strove for greater authenticity, in this case producing the much “flatter” style of violin playing that many scholars think was the common performance technique in the Baroque era.

That said, however, Mr. Kavakos still brought his declamatory performance style to bear on this work, a surprisingly bold approach that still put his personal and very distinctive stamp on this performance.

Rounding out this recital’s first half, Mr. Kavakos next performed Beethoven’s infrequently encountered Sonata No. 5 in F major, (sometimes subtitled “Frülingssonate”), the composer’s Op. 24. Considerably brighter and lighter than what we usually expect from the very-dramatic Beethoven, Mr. Kavakos’ approach to the work was more relaxed than in either the Bach sonata that preceded it or the Schuman sonata that followed.

That said, however, Beethoven is still Beethoven, and the composer could not resist the occasional eruption of sturm und drang, even in this work. At those moments, Mr. Kavakos attacked the music with almost manic energy, providing startling contrasts to the general character of this sonata, making the over all presentation highly effective and delightfully unpredictable.

The finale of the program was a performance of yet another infrequently-encountered work, Schumann’s late Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121. While Schumann’s compositions do encounter gale-force emotions on occasion, his music is generally inventive and forthright, demonstrating great attention to detail while still exhibiting unique harmonic characteristics.

In this sonata, however, the storm clouds gather early and often. It was written late in the composer’s rather short life, a time when his inexorably evolving mental problems began to overcome him with pessimism, negativity and thoughts of suicide.

Oddly, however, there are numerous moments of sunniness in this work. But they are interrupted with frequency by savage and seemingly apocalyptic moments, providing numerous astonishing and sometimes unexpected contrast for the soloist to exploit.

Mr. Kavakos took up the challenge here, in his stormy, blazing interpretation of this large, four-movement sonata. Mr. Eschenbach was also clearly on board, answering Mr. Kavakos’ musical challenges in kind on the piano, whose complex and difficult part added another stirring dimension to the work.

At the conclusion of the Schumann’s finale, the capacity audience couldn’t contain its enthusiasm, prevailing on the soloists to return for not one, but two encores, the Allegretto grazioso (quasi andante) of Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 for Piano and Violin, Op. 100, and the equally gracious yet still challenging Alegretto from Mozart’s Sonata No. 32 in B-flat major, K. 454.

Both were splendidly performed by both artists, bringing a pleasurable and memorable end to this uncommonly fine program of chamber music.

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Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Upcoming: Mr. Kavakos will wrap up his NSO residency this weekend, conducting and performing a wide-ranging program that includes Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sibelius’ infrequently encountered incidental music to “Pelléas et Mélisande,” and Maurice Ravel’s colorful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Tickets and information: Tickets for Mr. Kavakos final program this season with the NSO range from $10-85. This regular series concert program will be presented in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday, May 14, 2015 at 7 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16, 2015 at 8 p.m. For more details and to purchase tickets, visit the NSO pages of the Kennedy Center’s website.

To call for tickets, phone the Box Office at 202-467-4600 or 800 444-1324.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17