Seen and Heard International
Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Philadelphia
Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, 10 February
This is by way of being nostalgia week at the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Riccardo Muti, the last music director but one, is in town as
I write, to conduct a benefit concert with and for the orchestra;
and on Thursday his immediate successor Wolfgang Sawallisch, named
conductor laureate when Christoph Eschenbach took over the orchestra’s
leadership in 2003, began a three-week return engagement with
a program comprising the second set of Slavonic Dances by Dvořák
and the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Sawallisch is much admired in this neck of the woods. My own feeling
is that the respect in which he is held is due in large degree
to the unimpeachable air of Germanic correctness that characterizes
his whole appearance and platform manner. Certainly he also, as
orchestral players sometimes put it, “has hands”:
his baton technique is irreproachable, and he has the gift of
conveying clearly and exactly to his players what he wants from
them. What he wants, on the other hand, is not something that
often thrills me. Of all the many concerts I have heard him conduct,
beginning with his London debut around four decades ago, I can
recall only two or three that had me on the edge of my seat with
excitement. And however firm his leadership and his control of
ensemble, I find the absence of anything like a real pianissimo
in his performances persistently troubling, whether from a purely
technical point of view or from an artistic one.
The performances he led this week offered much food for thought.
Yesterday, in conversation, I predicted with some confidence that
the local press, which routinely uses Sawallisch as a stick with
which to beat both Muti and Eschenbach, would come up with adulatory
comment. And in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, sure enough,
Peter Dobrin tells me that “The boss is back,” adding,
“these performances towered – for absolute ensemble
unity, interpretive sophistication, and for the simple fact that
it is only under Sawallisch that the Philadelphia Orchestra sounds
like the Philadelphia Orchestra.” Well, it is perhaps undignified
for me to disagree with a colleague, and criticism is a matter
of opinion, and you are perfectly well entitled to prefer Mr.
Dobrin’s opinion to mine. But there are important issues
at stake here, and my own view is that those remarks are eyewash
(or earwash). It was ironic that the concert came just a few days
after the same critic had lambasted the hall’s acoustics
for an alleged lack of presence, of “visceral impact,”
in the way it makes the orchestra sound – ironic because,
to my ears, the Dvořák
before intermission was ear-splittingly loud, to the point of
inflicting actual physical pain. Any listener, moreover, might
have been forgiven for remaining unaware that those eight charming
pieces are dances, for there was not one iota of lilt or grace
in these coarse and vulgar performances.
The evening was saved by the soloist. Two or three years ago,
in this same hall, Leonidas Kavakos gave probably the finest performance
of a Mozart violin concerto (the G-Major) that I have ever heard,
and his Beethoven this week attained a similarly Olympian level.
This young Greek violinist has everything: flawless technique
of fingers and bow arm, a sound that is unforcedly rich and meltingly
beautiful, and a full measure of the imagination and taste that
was needed in order to transcend the prosaic character of the
conductor’s contribution to the proceedings. One infallible
measure of the way an orchestra is playing for a particular conductor
can be found it the way repeated string quavers sound in quick
movements–they can be nuanced and communicative, or they
can sound like mere scrubbing. These just scrubbed. No matter;
I went home happy, with my head full of Kavakos’s noble
and poetic playing.