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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Danse russe (Petrushka) (arr. Samuel Dushkin) [2:52]
Chanson russe (Mavra) (arr. Samuel Dushkin) [4:11]
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Caprice basque, Op.24 [5:25]
Romanza andaluza, Op.22 [5:04]
Francisco TÁRREGA (1852-1909)
Recuerdos de la Alhambra (arr. Ruggiero Ricci) [2:41]
Manuel DE FALLA (1876-1946)
Danza del molinero (El sombrero de tres picos) [2:36]
Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Introduction & Variations on “Nel cor piů non mi sento”, Op.38 (arr. Joseph Szigeti) [12:51]
Variations on God Save the King, Op. 9 [6:35]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)
Capriccio-valse, Op.7 [6:14]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier (arr. Váša Přihoda) [7:56]
Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Andante alla zingaresca [6:01]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Reveille [5:14]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
La Capricieuse, Op.17 [4:05]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Valse sentimentale, Op.51 No.6 (arr. David J. Grunes) [3:00]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Humoresque in G flat, Op.101 No.7 (arr. Fritz Kreisler) [4:02]
Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Enrico Pace (piano)
rec. Dmitris Mitropoulos Hall, Athens, 28-31 May 2015
DECCA 478 9377 [83:47]

This is one of those discs which, from the very first second, makes you sit with open-mouthed admiration at the sheer brilliance of the playing. Scribbled hieroglyphics on the front of the CD appear to trace out the word “Virtuoso”, but you do not need to decipher them to realise that we are in the presence of an extraordinarily gifted player who is here indulging in an unabashed exhibition of his violinistic mastery.

From the moment I first heard Leonidas Kavakos play – it must be around 20 years ago – I was conscious that this was a player of particular quality, whose easy technical mastery of the instrument and remarkable richness of tone were not so much an end in themselves as the outlet for an intense and searing musicianship which could make even the most daunting scores come alive while re-investing the familiar ones with new interest.

The playlist looks as if this is a simple collection of virtuoso encores. And indeed it is. Much of this repertory is in the gift of most violin virtuosi who trot it out on demand. One senses that for Kavakos, however, the manifest opportunities for bravura display are not the sole reason for devoting an entire CD to this collection of virtuoso showpieces.

The two Stravinsky solos kick things off with real impact, the Danse russe fizzing with energy while the poise of Chanson russe adds a deeper dimension. Subtle bending of the rhythm and note give an instinctive Spanish feel to the Sarasate pieces, although not at the expense of a dazzling display of technical brilliance in the variations of the Caprice basque. Ruggiero Ricci’s remarkable transcription of the Recuerdos de la Alhambra is a pretty devilish challenge for any violinist, but somehow Kavakos creates that guitarist finger-nail clarity of articulation in a performance which is not merely an aural exhibition, but rather more of a personal interpretation of the music.

Similar elevation of such violinist party-pieces as Wieniawski’s Capriccio-valse, Dohnányi’s Gypsy Andante and Kreisler’s version of Dvořák’s Humoresque (which, warmed by Kavakos’s richly lyrical sound, gives off a comforting aroma of extreme sentimentality) make these musically rewarding performances with real interpretative personality. The strutting Spanishness of Falla’s Miller’s Dance includes some tantalising elasticity of tempo, in which Kavakos’s ever-astute pianist, Enrico Pace, matches every gesture step-for-step.

There are a few relative musical strangers here. Benjamin Britten’s haunting Reveille, written in 1936 for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa (and, apparently, intended to poke fun at his inability to get out of bed in the mornings) has an almost unworldly quality with Kavakos’s restrained use of tone colour. By way of a complete contrast Elgar’s flighty study in staccato playing for a Worcester pupil comes across here as far more than just a technical exercise; Kavakos invests it with tremendous musical warmth. Taken from a set of six piano pieces which Tchaikovsky claimed to have written solely for money, the Valse sentimentale clearly has some deeper significance, and Kavakos draws much in his interpretation from the fact that the piece appears to be a kind of nostalgic impression of a lady by the name of Emma Genton.

Two outrageously extravagant violin solo showpieces from the pen of the matchless Paganini take us into the realms of unimaginable virtuoso playing. The 13 minute set of variations on a theme from Paisiello’s La molinara is so full of Paganini conjuring tricks that one wonders, not for the first time, quite how so much of it is humanly possible. And as for the variations on God Save the King one does not know whether to laugh, cry, stand rigidly to attention or suggest high treason as the British national anthem is so pulled, pushed, squeezed and distorted into a exhibition of improbable violinistic feats.

Marc Rochester



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