Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist, and Yuja Wang, the pianist, have formed a violin-and-piano partnership. Each of them is a star in his own right. Sometimes, stars team. Rubinstein and Szeryng formed a violin-and-piano partnership. So did Oistrakh and Richter.
Note my inconsistency. In speaking of Kavakos and Wang, I named the violinist first. I did the same with Oistrakh and Richter. Yet I named Rubinstein, the pianist, before Szeryng. Why? I’m not really sure. But it’s hard to think of Rubinstein as anything but first, isn’t it?
(You probably know the story about the “Million-Dollar Trio,” i.e., Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Piatigorsky—although Heifetz would not approve of my order. If you don’t know the story, go here, to a write-up of mine last year.)
The team of Kavakos and Wang returned to Carnegie Hall last night. Their program was Bach followed by two Bach-besotted composers: Busoni and Shostakovich. The Bach they played was the Violin Sonata No. 3 in E major, BWV 1016.
I will begin with the pianist, though I have put her name second. She was limpid, as usual. She brought out the bass voices unusually well. Her piano, in my view, was too retiring, too mousey—not pure, substantial, or “carrying” enough. I have made that complaint about Wang before. I have also said that I wish her a touch more assertive, in her teamwork with Kavakos.
Some may remember a line from a lawyer (Brendan Sullivan) during the Iran-contra hearings: “I am not a potted plant.”
Kavakos made his beautiful, elegant sound. Sort of a liquid sound. A sound that gives the impression of wetness. Some of his articulation was a little clumsy, however. And he did some rushing, forcing Wang to scramble a bit. The final movement (Allegro) was not nearly as crisp and coordinated as it should have been.
Throughout the sonata, both musicians seemed glued to their music. (Their sheet music.) The sonata had an air of routine about it, I’m afraid. It was like an un-special appetizer, gotten out of the way, so that the main meal could proceed. Yet BWV 1016 is not un-special. It is a meal—a beautiful, masterly Bachian meal—all by itself.
Busoni devoted much of his life to Bach, as you know—all those transcriptions and arrangements. He also wrote a great variety of original compositions, including operas. Doktor Faust has some renown. Do you know that Busoni also wrote a Turandot, ten years before Puccini?
Kavakos and Wang played Busoni’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 36a. It is a strange work. I use “strange” in the way that Harold Bloom, the late literary critic, did. “Strange” was one of his highest terms of praise. He meant original, different, singular. Busoni—while of course influenced by other composers, Bach not least—was his own man.
Kavakos played with utter self-possession. When he is in this mode—either as a violinist or as a conductor—watch out. His musicianship is supreme. He played the Busoni like an intellectual with soul. Also like an aristocrat. His pianist, Wang, was admirably versatile: now martial; now poetic; now galloping. With self-assertion, she had no problem.
At one point, she played something like a hymn, or chorale. It was big, beautiful, and plush. Carnegie Hall was almost a church, for a second. I believe it was my favorite moment of the evening.
Last on the program was the Violin Sonata of Shostakovich, Op. 134. He wrote only one. Curious, I think, for a man with such a long, varied, prolific career. He wrote two violin concertos, as you know—the first of which is one of the very best in the entire repertory (the violin-concerto repertory). In fact, I believe that Shostakovich wrote nothing better. That includes the String Quartet No. 8. And the Symphony No. 5. And Lady Macbeth!
Shostakovich, that great Bach man, composed twenty-four preludes and fugues. (He did not go for a Book II, as Bach did.) He also made an inspired quip, about his catholicity: “I like all music, from Bach to Offenbach.”
There is nothing particularly quippy about his violin sonata. It reeks of death, or so I think. It is a very personal piece. The first movement, in addition to death, has that Shostakovich smirk. We use the word “sardonic” over and over again, in describing his music. If there is humor, it is often of the gallows kind.
His second movement, Allegretto, is one of his fast-and-furious pieces. (Is Allegretto really the right marking? Not that I should be questioning Shostakovich. I think he means, more than anything: not too fast.) In his third and final movement, he is back to the grave.
What does it take to play this sonata? The music must not be rushed. Neither can it lag. Also, the music takes great, great concentration on the part of its players. Doesn’t all music? Is there any music you can play—or sing or conduct—properly while thinking about your grocery list? No. But some pieces require more concentration than others. Intense concentration.
Kavakos and Wang were very good. Earlier, I spoke of Kavakos’s “sound.” He may have a characteristic one—but, like any violinist worth his salt, he has several sounds. He employed them in the Shostakovich. I might add that he made possibly the loudest pizzicatos I have ever heard.
Yuja Wang, I have often faulted for playing on the surface of the keys. (She is gifted almost beyond belief, mind you.) I ask for more substance. In the Shostakovich, when called for, she positively dug into the keys, to bracing effect. Technically and mentally, she played very well.
And don’t forget that Busoni “hymn.” There was nothing “on the surface” about that. The piano’s sound filled Carnegie Hall, richly and regally.
Now, the Shostakovich Violin Sonata is not what you would call a crowd-pleaser. (For a note on the piece, see my colleague Isaac Sligh, in this “Critic’s Notebook.”) The concert itself was not especially crowd-pleasing—for which, hats off to the players. But the crowd was pleased. And the players offered an encore: the fifth and final movement, “Dithyramb,” from Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante.
That beautiful, slightly wet ribbon of sound that Kavakos produces—extraordinary. It stays in the ear for a while.