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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto [49:27]
Septet in E flat, Op. 20 [40:32]
6 Variations on Folk Songs, Op. 105: No. 3 [5:53]
10 Variations on Folk Songs, Op. 107: Nos. 1, 2, 6 & 7 [17:28]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Enrico Pace (piano)
rec. 2019, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich; Studio 1 of Bavarian Radio, Munich; Casino Baumgarten
SONY CLASSICAL 19075929882 [49:27 + 64:19]

I arrived at this recording with a bit of scepticism - Leonidas Kavakos is an artist who, for me, blows hot and cold - but it’s very much a success. For one thing the unusual choice of repertoire makes it a pretty unique coupling, but it could only have been put together by a violinist like Kavakos who features in every work, and thus demonstrates the exploratory sense of discovery that characterises his musical interests.

In one important sense, there’s a rather old-school feeling to the concerto, and that’s the tempi. Kavakos, who directs from the violin, chooses speeds that are on the stately side, more along the lines of Giulini’s classic performance than more recent readings from Ticciati, Herreweghe or Bělohlávek. However, that gives the music an Olympian splendour which I found very convincing, and this is music that can take either reading and withstand it with resilience. The opening orchestral tutti is grand without being overbearing, and the violin steals in with winning discretion, Kavakos injecting a couple of pauses and rubati to give it an extra edge of colour. Throughout the first movement, the violin’s lyrical sense of singing sits beautifully alongside the orchestra’s weightier sound, nowhere finer than in the melancholic passage that ends the development, and the launching of the recapitulation is a worthy, grand summation. The cadenza is an arrangement of the cadenza, with timpani duet, that Beethoven wrote for the concerto’s piano transcription. It’s dazzling, and if in other hand it would be attention-grabbing, then here it fits into the texture and works very well indeed.

That cantabile sense of beauty seems to infiltrate the orchestra for the slow movement, whose theme is played with hushed wonder by the strings. The violin sounds positively ethereal as a partner, weaving its way in and out of the orchestral variations with great beauty, and the counter-theme, introduced by the soloist, sounds sensational, both sensitive and inward. Kavakos interjects his own cadenza in the transition to the finale, which still rollicks for all its slower tempo. Indeed, the stronger orchestral sound (with more musicians) gives this music more forward momentum than you’d get from a chamber orchestra. Kavakos strides across the finish line with a breezy sense of a goal achieved, and this sets the seal on a performance that is enormously satisfying. 

Among recent recordings, it doesn’t have the fresh-out-of-the-box excitement of Tetzlaff/Ticciati (review), who leave things intentionally a little rougher around the edges and achieve something wonderful as a result; and it doesn’t quite have the excitement of Ehnes/Manze (review), which remains my favourite among recent versions. However, it’s still enormously satisfying, and you might be swung by the unusual (and generous couplings), which show Kavakos and his orchestral companions in a fascinatingly different light.

The violin, of course, plays a starring role in the Septet which, to his great frustration, was Beethoven’s most popular work in his own lifetime; but it’s definitely a collective effort, with each of the soloists being given their due (and a credit in the booklet). Next to Kavakos is a fantastically juicy clarinet, and the bassoon and horn make their presence known with understated delicacy in the slow movement

Nor is the music too hard-driven. The slow introduction has an airy grace to it, and while the main allegro is marked con brio, there’s a sense of the music sailing gracefully by, without never a feeling of being pushed. There’s a gorgeous sense of legato to the slow second movement, the main theme sung with liquid beauty by the clarinet before being taken over by the violin, and a quiet pomposity to the Menuet. The variations are beautifully varied, and the Scherzo has a lovely bustle to it; I particularly liked the rustic wheeze of the Trio. The horn takes himself fantastically seriously during the slow introduction to the finale, but the rest of the movement jollies along wonderfully, with every instrument playing its part with perceptible relish.

The folk songs are also a very useful addition. For modern audiences, it often comes as a big surprise to learn just how consistently folk song arrangements, particularly Scottish ones, appeared in Beethoven’s mature career. He wrote dozens of such miniatures - they were probably his most consistently reliable source of income - and they probably represent the biggest disconnect between the eternal titanic genius and the working composer who had to pay his bills. Kavakos and his partner, Enrico Pace, play these ones with great style. I couldn’t detect a lot of period performance style, but the plush legato and Romantic approach does them no harm, and they help reinforce the important elements of fun.

So this disc is something of a winner, then. A varied selection of repertoire, united in the person of its main performer, who plays with great style and consistently enjoyable musicianship. The excellent recorded sound helps, too.

Simon Thompson

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