The greatest violinist in the world? It’s a silly concept, of course. Some are wonderful technicians, others find a humanity in the music obvious nowhere on the printed page.
But if there is another violinist anywhere who could have pulled off the extraordinary PCMS recital Leonidas Kavakos did Monday night at the Perelman Theater, I don’t know who it might be.
He came with an enormous advantage in his longtime collaborator, Enrico Pace.
There’s that breathtakingly delicate stretch in the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Minor, Opus 23 where, in two-note increments, piano and violin take turns going down a scale. In tone and in character, they dovetailed so beautifully the sound seemed to spring from a single hand.
This kind of closeness extended to the entire recital. In ethereal Prokofiev and an Enescu sonata that came from the most soulful place on earth, pianist and violinist could be heard finishing each other's sentences.
For encores, no ordinary Bach profundity or Kreisler cream puff would do. Each of two obscurities further deepened our understanding of the artists.
A movement of the Petite Suite No. 1 by early-20th-century Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas was fast and feathery, and Ernő Dohnányi’s Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32d ended on a high note of such hushed magnificence it seemed like the pinnacle of an entire civilization.
Kavakos first appeared locally when he made his Mann Center debut two decades ago and came to be championed by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s then-music director Wolfgang Sawallisch. In the intervening years, I’ve sometimes found him to be slightly distant — perfect but cool, a marble bust of sorts.
Not so Monday night. Whether the repertoire or a personal evolution, Kavakos on this visit was an idealized version of the complete violinist.
Beethoven started at a quick clip (not as fast as Gidon Kremer’s way with it, but far from Anne-Sophie Mutter’s slow, studied pace). But what emerged in the second movement was a violinist with a lovely dark-amber sound and great power and refinement. His sound has unusual presence and warmth.
It’s saying something when the least challenging piece on a program is Bartók’s Violin Rhapsody No. 1, and the pair nailed the work’s playfulness and manic drive.
In Enescu’s Violin Sonata in A Minor, Opus 25, Kavakos’ preternatural technique went a long way in emphasizing the folk material and reminding us just how far to the east Romania is. In a free-floating tempo, Kavakos used colors ranging from saturated and lusty to chalky.
It was in Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F Minor, Opus 80, though, where the violinist’s technique served its highest and most varied expressive purposes.
There was much to admire in this work, which is large-scale and one of Prokofiev’s darkest scores. In the serene third movement, where the piano shimmers above and violin glides below, Kavakos and Pace joined in a pas de deux of arresting poise.
Kavakos rendered those incredibly fast, quiet violin runs that recur in the piece so precisely and deftly that you almost weren’t sure where the sound was coming from.