Virtuoso. Leonidas Kavakos, violin. Enrico Pace, piano. Music by Stravinsky, de Falla, Sarasate, Britten, Elgar, and others. Decca 478 9377. Total Time: 78:46.
My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin. Daniel Hope, violin. Basel Chamber Orchestra. Music by Mendelssohn, El Khoury, Reich, Vivaldi, Tavener, Henze, Elgar, Enescu, and others. DG 479 5305. Total Time: 74:16.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — These recordings of recital programs by two celebrated violinists in the prime of their careers could hardly be more different. Forty-eight-year-old Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos gives us largely traditional repertoire — some of it requiring utmost virtuosity — while 43-year-old South African-born British violinist Daniel Hope offers a most unusual mix of traditional and contemporary fare. Kavakos confines himself to piano accompaniment, while Hope opts for a variety of instrumental combinations, including a large chamber orchestra. Another contrast: Kavakos plays the “Abergavenny” Stradivarius (1724), while Hope uses the “ex-Lipinski” Guarneri del Gesu (1742).
Kavakos’ album is titled Virtuoso, and it lives up to its billing. The technical challenges of works like Paganini’s Variations on “God Save the King,” Op. 9, for unaccompanied violin, Wieniawski’s Capriccio-Valse, Op. 7, and Sarasate’s Caprice Basque, Op. 24, are fearsome, but Kavakos demonstrates that he can play just about anything with near-perfect intonation and at top speed when required. Equally impressive in the more lyrical pieces, he plays in a style usually associated with great violinists of the past: the slides and hesitations in Dvořák’s Humoresque, Op. 101, No. 7, in the Kreisler arrangement, for example, or the gorgeous tone displayed in Sarasate’s Romanza andaluza, Op. 22, No. 1, are a throwback to the days of the great Russian violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967).
I find Samuel Dushkin’s arrangement of the “Danse Russe” from Stravinsky’s Petrushka to be an exercise in futility. This music, conceived for orchestra, also works wonderfully as a piano solo, but any attempt — including Dushkin’s in this arrangement — to turn the violin into a percussion instrument is surely doomed to failure. Kavakos does what he can, but why bother?
There is one near-contemporary gem in the collection: Benjamin Britten’s Reveille (1937). The composer’s Violin Concerto, recently revived by some major violinists, finally seems to be taking its rightful place in the repertoire. Reveille also deserves to be performed more frequently. Kavakos’ performance is superb. Over a deceptively simple accompaniment, with technical tricks fully integrated into the flow of the music, his violin weaves a hypnotic spell.
Kavakos, a frequent soloist with major touring orchestras — he joined Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony on their recent U.S. tour — is surely on everyone’s list of the leading violinists of his generation. This new Decca CD will certainly further enhance his reputation.
The mother of Daniel Hope, soloist on the DG Menuhin tribute recording, was Yehudi Menuhin’s secretary for the last 24 years of his life. This proximity to Menuhin gave young Daniel the opportunity to learn from the master, and he became one of Menuhin’s foremost protéges. Hope began as a Menuhin student, but was soon performing double concertos with Menuhin in concert or appearing as soloist with Menuhin conducting.
That said, Hope today is a major artist in his own right. In addition to his solo violin appearances, he plays chamber music regularly — he was the last violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio before it disbanded — and will soon take up his post as conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.
This new Menuhin tribute CD — on the 100th anniversary of his birth — has been put together with considerable thoughtfulness and is a stimulating journey through the highways and byways of violin literature. Hope leads off with Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto in D minor, a piece Menuhin championed soon after it was rediscovered in 1951. Menuhin recorded it three times. Hope’s performance is beautifully executed, with fully committed playing from the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
The Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, RV 522, is a reminder that Menuhin and Hope often played this piece together, although probably not in this style. Hope opts for a historically informed approach, using a baroque bow. There is a general avoidance of excessive vibrato in his performance, but also a predilection for swells or reverse swells in nearly every bar. I began to feel seasick. And to make the performance even more unusual, Hope invited three soloists to take the second violin part: Simos Papanas in the first movement, Emanuele Forni in the second, and Naoki Kitaya in the third.
The better part of this CD is the contemporary material, from Bechara El Koury’s dreamy and haunting Unfinished Journey — a reference to the title of Menuhin’s autobiography of the same name — through Steve Reich’s minimalist Duet, John Tavener’s Song of the Angel, and Hans Werner Henze’s Adagio. Not the traditional fare of solo violinists, each of these pieces is effective and highly accessible.
For sheer, unadulterated pleasure, my favorite tracks are the gypsy-inspired pieces: Enescu’s Hora Unirii and Jo Knümann’s Rumänisch, played with tremendous energy and virtuosity by Hope and members of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin as if to the manner born. These pieces remind listeners that one of Menuhin’s greatest qualities as an artist was his curiosity about all cultures and their music. Devotees will recall that he famously paired with Stéphane Grappelli to play jazz and with Ravi Shankar to perform Indian ragas. Although he did not go quite that far, Hope, on this CD, has not only put together a worthy tribute to his master, but also solidified his own reputation as an artist willing to extend himself.
An important part of Menuhin’s legacy is the violin competition he founded, which has become one of the most prestigious for young violinists. In 2010, Canadian Kerson Leong won the junior division at 13. Today, at 19, Leong is already showing signs of developing into an important artist. His new recital CD (Analekta AN 2 9160), even more traditional in content than the Kavakos CD with less difficult repertoire, displays exceptional playing. It probably doesn’t hurt that his instrument is the 1691 “ex-Auer” Stradivarius, courtesy of Canimex Inc, Drummondville (Quebec), Canada.
Kavakos, Hope, and their contemporaries fully deserve their present eminence, but clearly the younger generation is also making its mark.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com,www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.