MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64; Piano Trios – No.1 in D minor, Op.49; No.2 in C minor, Op.66
The Athens-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos offers two justifications for adding another entry to the thick catalogue of recordings of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. First, he presents a highly original interpretation, providing a fresh approach without the least impression of originality for originality’s sake. And second, he couples the recording with intense, first-rate performances of Mendelssohn’s two piano trios. This album displays Kavakos as soloist, conductor and chamber musician, and he succeeds, impressively, in all roles.
At 42, Kavakos has established himself as one of the world’s leading concert violinists, with engagements with orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra. He has recorded the concertos of Mozart, Berg and Sibelius, among others. And now he turns to one of the world’s two or three most popular violin concertos.
Performances of this work are sometimes so smooth – almost disembodied – that you could almost forget a violin was being played by a flesh-and-blood person. But Kavokos’s Mendelssohn concerto is not one that errs on the side of prettiness. He can produce a gnarly, crunchy sound when the occasion demands, as in the double-stops in the first-movement coda, generating a muscular, urgent power not often associated with this concerto. Because of this, his sound is that much more radiant when he ascends the E string in Mendelssohn’s melodies. And he shapes those melodies with such style and grace, it’s as if he were discovering this music for the first time, not playing in the long shadows cast by the performances by Heifetz, Szeryng, Perlman and the rest.
Kavakos also conducts here, and perhaps surprisingly, he gives the orchestra a bigger role than it has in many other recordings, allowing orchestral melodies in the ‘Andante’ and ‘Allegro molto vivace’ second and third movements to acquire more prominence than usual over the passagework in the violin.
Although the interpretations of the two piano trios are more conventional, these are intense, lyrical performances, with sweeping, energetic, technically immaculate playing. This is Kavakos’s album, but there’s not a trace of first-among-equals treatment in this performances. The pianist Enrico Pace plays the most prominent role, with elegant and beautifully phrased playing, particularly in the first movement of the popular D minor Trio. The cellist Patrick Demenga has a warm, burnished tone that marries well with Kavakos on the violin.
The lesser-known, more brooding C minor Trio doesn’t offer the instantly memorable melodies of its predecessor. But the performance is as satisfying as the D minor. All involved seem completely in sympathy with one another, effortlessly emerging from or fading into the background as melodies intertwine. For sheer richness of tone and sonic beauty, it would be hard to beat the second movement, where, over the accompaniment of the piano, Kavakos and Demenga play long yearning melodies that create an atmosphere of glowing warmth.