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Monday, June 28, 2004

Arts & Letters

Playing With (Gypsy) Fire

Thirty-seven-year-old Leonidas Kavakos is one of the most interesting violinists on today’s performance circuit. Born in Athens to a family with a strong folk-music background, he began studying violin with his father and later continued his lessons at the Greek conservatory with Stelios Kafantarês. After winning an Onassis Foundation scholarship, Kavakos studied at Indiana University, which enabled him to take master classes with the late Josef Gingold, whose students also included Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Joshua Bell. (Gingold — one of the most revered teachers of his generation — also had an astonishing pedigree, having studied with legendary violinist and composer Eugene Ysaÿe, who in turn had been the pupil of another fabled artist, Henryk Wieniawski.) From there, Kavakos experienced a stratospheric rise: in 1985, he won Helsinki’s prestigious Sibelius competition; as an 18-year-old, he was, reportedly, the youngest contestant. The following year, he won the silver medal at another well-regarded event, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and followed up in 1988 with first prizes at New York’s Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition and Genoa’s Paganini international competition.

Since then, Kavakos’s career has encompassed a great deal of international touring and a number of very fine recordings, including a critically acclaimed and groundbreaking 1991 recording of Sibelius’s violin concerto — presented in both the piece’s original 1903-1904 version and in its well-known final version — with conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, released on Sweden’s BIS label. The Salzburg Camerata recently appointed Kavakos as principal guest artist, a position created especially for him. He is not neglecting his hometown, however; since 1992, he has presented an annual chamber music series at Athens’s Megaron Mousikês.

This recording of Ravel and Enescu sonatas is the first fruit of Kavakos’s new deal with Munich-based ECM Records. The violinist couldn’t have asked for a better partnership. Led by founder and producer Manfred Eicher, ECM is one of the most lauded labels in the business; it’s also one of the very few today to have a passionate consumer following. (If Eicher puts it out, the thinking goes, it must be worth hearing, even if the artist’s or composer’s name is unfamiliar.)

Another benefit of an ECM deal is the fervent cross-pollination that goes on at the label: once artists are signed to Eicher’s label, they frequently pop up on all kinds of ECM projects, not just on their own solo records. Shortly after Kavakos’s debut, for example, he was also heard on an ECM recording of works by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (with additional performances by violist Kim Kashkashian, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the vocal group, Hilliard Ensemble, all marquee names for the label.) Yet another benefit to ECM artists is that recordings tend to come fast and furious once the partnership has been established: Kavakos’s next solo effort, featuring the music of Bach and Stravinsky, is slated for release soon, and the label’s Website duly notes that “several further” Kavakos recordings are already in the can.

Is this kind of attention warranted? Certainly, the Sibelius album (which won the prestigious Gramophone magazine award for best concerto recording the year it was released) gave notice that Kavakos was an artist to be watched. But, of course, more than a decade has since gone by (with Kavakos making some recordings in the interim for BIS Records and England’s Chandos label); during this period Kavakos has developed a chamber-music partnership with the Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy (the current recording is also Nagy’s first ECM release).

On this first CD, the duo explore two works by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and two by George Enescu (1881-1955). These two composers were not just contemporaries, but also friends. Ravel and Enescu met while both were studying composition with Gabriel Fauré, and from that point forward were frequent colleagues; indeed, Ravel’s second violin sonata was debuted by Enescu in 1927.

As this CD amply demonstrates, however, the two had a common musical interest as well: an abiding love for Roma (gypsy) music. That shared love becomes the underpinning for this album: all four works share not just instrumentation, but a certain artistic sensibility. Part of the fun here is not only tracing these commonalities, but also exploring how Ravel and Enescu’s perceptions of “gypsy-ness” diverged.

This disc also succeeds on another level: each composer’s music is illuminated by exploring the other’s. Received wisdom generally holds Ravel as one of the gurus of impressionism — setting the pace for an ultra-refined French style — while Enescu, when his music (as opposed to his violin playing) is even discussed at all, is often dismissed as a second-rank purveyor of folk music. One important result of this album’s imaginative programming is that we hear for ourselves how wrong these judgments are. We hear Enescu’s total mastery: his gift for harmony, his controlled use of “folk” motifs, and his innate sense of tonal color. Likewise, Ravel is revealed as a composer wildly in love with Roma music, unafraid of jagged rhythms or fierce passions. Subtitled “Dans le caractère populaire roumain,” Enescu’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in A minor, op. 25, written in 1926, is steeped in the sounds of Roma lautari (musicians). Figures and ornaments reminiscent of Roma melodies are scattered throughout the first movement (which is marked “Moderato maliconico” [melancholic]). The slow second movement, full of mysterious-sounding, almost ghostly, artificial harmonics, strongly recalls the third of Bartok’s Romanian Dances, a piece which debuted in an orchestral version nine years before this sonata. The fast third movement snaps with life; Kavakos and Nagy play up the astringent qualities of this section, but still allow plenty of space for the music to breathe.

Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance from 1940 is a tour de force of the art of mimicry. It is set as a series of 10 deftly sketched portraits, ranging from incisive character studies of a minstrel and a beggar to uncanny imitations of a chirping bird, a bonging cuckoo clock, rustling crickets, and the ghoulish whisper of wind in a chimney.

Meanwhile, Ravel’s Sonate posthume — written in 1897 while the composer was studying at the Paris conservatory, but unpublished until 1975 — is temperamentally very much of its French impressionist period. (It’s also worth noting that scholars postulate that this piece may have been written for Enescu, a violin virtuoso in his own right, with Ravel as the pianist.) Despite its time of composition, both Kavakos and Nagy create melodic statements — alternately soaring flights of fantasy and gently subsiding, bluesy sighs — that seem informed by the phrasing of jazz (a style that greatly influenced Ravel, but not until well after this particular piece was composed).

Ravel’s most clearly Roma-inspired work, Tzigane, was penned in 1924. (Although, as noted above, Ravel and Enescu were frequent concert collaborators, this piece was dedicated to and first performed by a young Hungarian, Jelly d’Aranyi. This shift may have been caused by Enescu’s decision, at that point in his life, to divorce in his mind Roma music from other Romanian folk traditions, as he was composing works based on the latter.) The work is hellishly demanding for even the most accomplished violinist: it’s full of extended double stops, tricky pizzicatos, and hard-to-sound artificial harmonic notes. (The pianist doesn’t have it much easier.) It also requires true fluency in the Roma musical idiom: a certain flourish of the bow at the end of phrases, an intense but not overly fast vibrato, and almost louche slides from one note to the next. Without all these elements in place, Tzigane easily becomes either a pale imitation or a parody of “gypsy” style. Both Kavakos and Nagy are clearly comfortable with — and passionate for — this kind of music, and the results are exhilarating. This is easily one of the best versions of Tzigane available.

Creating an album focused on Roma motifs is something of a risky proposition: all too often, these works become (however unwittingly) a burlesque of perceived “gypsy” attributes, no matter how earnest the performance. (One might also question the wisdom of a non-Roma, like Ravel, exploiting another culture’s music, but this music is very much a product of its time and place.) In the case of Ravel’s Tzigane especially — the best-known work on this program — it is all too often played as no more than ear candy by artists who have no idea about the culture from which it stems (aside from hazy visions of headscarves and big gold earrings). So this violin-and-piano duo are playing with fire, for their task is to create performances of Roma-inspired music that become more than just caricature.

From the outset, Kavakos’s extremely sweet tone (which never crosses the line into the saccharine) is on fine display, as is his virtuosity, which is well-matched by Nagy’s. Both musicians negotiate the delicate balance between technical control and passionate eruption; neither quality is lost in service to the other. The keenly idiomatic way in which both Kavakos and Nagy play is outstanding as well. By all measures, this is an album that exemplifies Kavakos’s and Nagy’s talent, and is one more testament to ECM’s well-deserved reputation.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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