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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Dvořák & Beethoven: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, 10 February 2005 (BJ)


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.


Bernard Jacobson




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)