To hear Leonidas Kavakos play the Brahms Violin Concerto is to be newly apprised of the work’s reputed difficulties. Not that Kavakos struggles with the solo part—far from it. But he presents the myriad double-stops, compound-chords, and wide leaps with such clarity and vividness that your ear is drawn to these effects more than usual. Yet for all this, Kavakos’ rendition is a thoroughly musical one, fully cognizant of Brahms’ structure and overall symphonic plan. Riccardo Chailly’s cleanly articulated, tersely-romantic accompaniment makes an apt foil for his soloist, as do the clear textures and lean string sound he evokes from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
That Kavakos would choose the warhorse Joachim cadenza at first seems at odds with his interpretive stance, but his fresh approach proves otherwise. By sculpting each phrase so inventively, Kavakos rivets your attention and at times gives the impression that he’s improvising. In the songful slow movement (which showcases beautiful playing by the Leipzig winds) Kavakos soothes without sounding saccharine, while the finale crackles with life, thanks in part to the violinist inserting a bit of gypsy flair into the famous “Hungarian” tune.
This Hungarian flavor, albeit of a more rustic variety, carries over to Bartók’s Rhapsodies for violin and piano, which Kavakos and pianist Péter Nagy dispatch with jaunty bravura and folksy style. These same characteristics lend the more cosmopolitan Brahms Hungarian Dances a certain authenticity that the orchestral versions lack.
The recording places the orchestra slightly to the rear in the acoustic, but produces a satisfying full sound in louder passages (although the violin is oddly more prominent when playing with the orchestra than with just the piano). This is a fine modern Brahms Violin Concerto that can hold its own in a crowded catalog. (Victor Carr Jr)