Kavakos provides a season highlight with Shostakovich

Fri Mar 09, 2018 at 2:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leonidas Kavakos performed Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursady night. Photo; Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos performed Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo; Marco Borggreve

What is the greatest violin concerto of the 20th century?  The Barber concerto is likely the most beautiful, the Sibelius the most atmospheric, the Prokofiev Second the most flashy (and the most played).

But Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 has the strongest claim on being the finest work in the genre of the last century. The concerto’s greatness stems in part from its artful blending of showy virtuosity within a formal structure that also explores profound depths of expression. The music moves from bleak desolation into a sense of arduous conflict (in the extended solo cadenza) and ultimately a burst of energy in a finale that is arguably the most thrilling concerto closer of all.

Shostakovich’s concerto possesses a depth and varied richness of expression that transcend the obligatory Talmudic decoding for crypto anti-Soviet subversiveness. The First Violin Concerto is a grander, deeper work than that, more broadly seeming to reflect midcentury angst and dislocation, with the center not holding.

Fresh from his tour of Brahms trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist in the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto Thursday night with Emmanuel Krivine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And in his remarkable performance of this fascinating work, the Greek violinist served up a highlight of the current season.

This music is clearly in Kavakos’s wheelhouse and he was fully in the zone from the first notes. In the opening Nocturne, the soloist conveyed the sense of an individual in a desolate landscape, playing with a spare tone, wide dynamic range and searching expression. In the ensuing Scherzo, he put across the restless sardonic energy with articulation and rhythms spot-on in this tricky music.

The heart of the concerto is the Passacaglia, which brought the only minor cavil of the performance. Here Kavakos’s playing felt too ardent and boldly projected from the start, missing the sense of the solo line rising out of the depths to greater emotional intensity.

Still, there was no doubting the passion of Kavakos’s playing, and the ensuing cadenza was wholly compelling. The violinist played it with nuanced feeling, as a hushed, interior meditation, almost giving the impression of the audience eavesdropping on a private conversation. As the cadenza ascends with gradually increasing complexity and acceleration, Kavakos conveyed the sense of wrenching the music with physical effort out of the gloom, striving upwards as the solo violin line builds to a defiant statement of the  composer’s musical motto (DSCH).

Kavakos possesses a technique as complete as anyone in the business, and the closing Burlesque was a whirlwind, edge-of-the-seat  experience, with soloist, Krivine and the orchestra ramping up the speed and tempo until the exhilarating coda.

Apart from a jarring woodwind lapse at the start of the Passacaglia, the orchestra proved simpatico partners under Krivine’s alert and supportive accompaniment.

A rousing ovation from the audience and prolonged applause from orchestra members brought Kavakos back out repeatedly until he obliged with an encore: a spacious, intimate rendering of the Andante from Bach’s Solo Sonata No. 2, BWV 1003.

Emmanuel Krivine
Emmanuel Krivine

Krivine made a worthy showing in his CSO debut in 2016. And the audience must be grateful for the French conductor stepping in and taking the helm for a week previously assigned to the disgraced Charles Dutoit.

Unfortunately, none of the other performances on the program rose above the routine.  

The opening Prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina sounded almost offhand; rushed, overloud, and wholly lacking in magic or atmosphere, the beauty of this miniature was nowhere in evidence.

The maxim that conductors always have an inherent expertise in music of their compatriots was refuted with the performance of Debussy’s La Mer, which closed the evening. While the orchestra’s playing was typically polished and committed, Krivine’s direction was almost comically insensitive–fast, loud and heavy-handed throughout. Quiet dynamics were minimized or ignored entirely and the score’s languor, evocative coloring and subtle half-tones were sloughed over repeatedly.

The conductor seemed more in synch with the brassy music of Berlioz. Played by the CSO for the first time in 18 years, the “Royal Hunt and Storm” section from Les Troyens, was given a flamboyant reading by Krivine with the horn solos lending a welcome bit of refined taste to the evening.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to “Kavakos provides a season highlight with Shostakovich”

  1. Posted Mar 11, 2018 at 11:43 am by John Abbott

    thanks for this. I second your view of the Shostakovich as standing at the pinnacle of violin concerto repertory (and agree with your assessments of the Barber and Prokofiev as well). Kavakos’s performance (I caught the Saturday night concert) was an extraordinary experience, one that reopened my ears and rekindled my enthusiasm for Shostakovich’s epic traversal from abyss to mountaintop and back again. What a journey!

  2. Posted Mar 12, 2018 at 10:29 am by Gerry Ahrens

    Totally agree, we went Thursday night and Kavakos & the CSO were fantastic on the Violin Concerto. We debated leaving at intermission only because we were more interested in the Ruskie than the French half & wish we had.

    How about a 21st century violin Concerto composed by one of the CSO’s own former former Mead composer-in-residences, Mason Bates? Is it me or did Muti hide this guy and I think it was our loss.
    Contracted & performed by Anne Akiko Meyers.

    It was performed at the CSO a couple years ago. Haunting, Fabulous.
    Have a lovely week.

Leave a Comment