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Tuesday's concert was an important warm-up performance for violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang, who perform at Carnegie Hall later this week.

Review: In a charged concert, Wang and Kavakos demonstrate their mastery

There was electricity in the air before the start of Tuesday’s recital by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts — although it wasn’t to last.

As musicians of the highest order, they make an interesting duo. Both are phenomenally intense super-virtuosos. She’s among the most charismatic and vivacious musicians on the planet, while he’s known for his high seriousness and concentration. In performance, they play to and off each other with dazzling compatibility.

The Emory concert must have sold out on name recognition alone, since it wasn’t about the program. There were no flashy hits from the endlessly rich violin-piano repertoire, but rather four sober works of contemplation, seemingly a dialogue with, and about, Johann Sebastian Bach. In an elegant symmetry, they programmed two weighty and urgent sonatas, by Ferruccio Busoni and Dmitri Shostakovich, and paired each with a Bach sonata.

The stakes were high. Atlanta is their warmup for New York City: they repeat this program tonight (Thursday) on the big stage at Carnegie Hall, and continue a coast-to-coast North American tour over the next few weeks. One might expect the entire run to be sold out.

Yuja Wang
Wang is noted for both her talent and her stage charisma. (Photo by Kirk Edwards)

Wearing pandemic masks, like the audience, they started with Bach’s E Major Sonata for Violin and Keyboard (BWV 1016), taking apart the opening Adagio phrase by phrase, carefully exploring the hall’s unfamiliar acoustics. It was charming to hear this Greek violinist and Chinese pianist sounding a little timid, like two children holding hands as they entered a haunted house.

But they survived intact, and the perky Allegro that followed — perhaps the most tuneful piece on the entire program — was simply magical in its lightness and depth.

For all their brilliance, Kavakos and Wang are rather traditional in their interpretations. A “historically informed” style isn’t their priority for Baroque music. So it was striking to hear Kavakos play with a thin, straight tone for much of the sonata, deploying a warming vibrato sparingly, usually to help shape or round off a phrase. Their Bach was served neat, without additives or mannerisms.

Ferruccio Busoni, a virtuoso pianist around the turn of 1900, was a highly creative composer and original spirit. (If you don’t know his deliriously wonderful Piano Concerto, you’re in for a 90-minute treat.) 

Busoni credited his Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, from 1898, as his first mature work, composed when he was 32. While not much removed from the conservative world of Brahms, Busoni was already thinking about big issues like unconventional musical architecture: His sonata’s final movement is almost twice as long as the first two movements combined.

And he’s already thinking about Bach. In the sonata’s third movement, a theme is drawn from a Bach chorale, “Wie wohl ist mir, O Freund der Seelen” (“O friends of souls, what blessings follow”) and followed by a set of variations, wildly contrasting in mood and imagination. Like the best of Busoni, the Sonata No. 2 is a slightly crazy masterpiece.

This was all delicious stuff, a playground for Kavakos and Wang. They played the sonata’s slow and sad opening with heartfelt sincerity, as if preparing us (and themselves) to confess some profound life struggle. But the human psyche — at least Busoni’s — is a fickle thing, and the mood soon opens up.

Like an opera singer delivering a heartfelt plea at the climax of an aria, here Kavakos would turn away from his music stand, take a step to the side, and face the audience directly. The auditorium was packed, but in these moments I felt he was speaking specifically to me. Wang’s playing throughout was immaculate, always engaged. She’d be singing to a baby in a crib one moment, the gentlest tones imaginable, and when the score turned violent she’d power up her industrial-strength jackhammer, at turns awesome and incredibly beautiful.        

After intermission came another Bach Sonata for Violin and Keyboard, this one in B minor (BWV 1014), which was much more relaxed and naturally shaped than the E Major Bach that opened the evening. Here their phrases were a touch more broad, and Kavakos seemed to use more bow pressure for a thicker, warmer sound.   

Leonidas Kavakos
Kavakos is an intense performer who has the ability to reach into the essence of the music he’s playing.

An almost unbearably bleak work — the obvious core of the program — came last. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, written in the late 1960s, was a birthday present to the great violinist David Oistrakh, a friend and collaborator who suffered, as did the composer, under Soviet cultural repression. Throughout his life, Shostakovich drew inspiration from Bach, modeling several pieces after the old master, and he deploys Baroque compositional techniques in the Violin Sonata. 

It helps to know that the sonata is at times sparse, somber or grim. (A few audience members had left at intermission, and a few more tiptoed out of the hall during the Shostakovich. Some people who remained shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.)

Much of the sonata is all weight and tension, abstract and unknowable. And here, too, Wang and Kavakos were in their element. Plain piano chords at the start, without harmony, create a desolate, angst-filled landscape. The violin enters with a simple theme, which is soon entwined with the wandering piano. The frenzied burlesque middle movement starts like an ironic dance but inevitably turns into a savage explosion, a torrent of rapid-fire notes sputtered with rage. For several nonstop minutes, Wang (on her iPad) and Kavakos (using three music stands to hold the many pages of sheet music) drilled into this brutal imagery. A stunning display, as much athletic as artistic.

The finale is a sort of moody theme-and-variations and brings back ideas heard earlier in the sonata. In the end you’re left with, what? Maybe nothing. Like Shostakovich, like Oistrakh, you’ve been hollowed out by the totalitarian system. 

As an encore, they finished the night in a somewhat less bleak mood, with “Dithyrambe” — tender, elegant, hummable — music from Igor Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant. In all, the audience was likely as emotionally drained as the performers. It was the exact result Wang and Kavakos, masters of their art, were seeking.

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Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is currently researching and writing a book on the politics of Baroque opera.

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