Yuja Wang & Leonidas Kavakos
Janáček / Schubert / Debussy / Bartók

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-12-12

3.5-star rating

2017-12-16 — Original posting

Table of Contents


Yuja Wang (*1987) was playing the piano in two of the first concerts that I reviewed in this blog , one on 2014-09-11 and a second one with chamber music on 2014-09-14, both in the Tonhalle in Zurich. I have also reviewed several of her CD recordings, and I have been asked to review a book where she is the key subject. With this, there is no need for further introduction. For additional information on Yuja Wang see also Wikipedia.

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (*1967) appeared in one short review discussing a CD that he recorded with Yuja Wang (Brahms, violin sonatas). I meant to see Kavakos in a concert this summer, but sadly, he had to cancel that appearance. So, this is my first live encounter with this artist. Again, additional information may be found on Wikipedia. Kavakos owns several modern violins, plus the 1724 “Abergavenny” instrument by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) which he played in this concert.

Setting, Venue

The duo recital took place in the Tonhalle Maag, Zurich’s temporary, main concert venue while the venerable, old Tonhalle is being renovated. The hall was only about 50% full in this concert. This sounds sad / bad (given the reputation of the two protagonists!). However, it should be kept in mind that in the old Tonhalle, such concert would be held in the small hall (acoustically less favorable, though). The Tonhalle Maag in Zurich’s West only has one hall. It’s a little smaller than the old, big hall, but much bigger than the small hall at the regular Tonhalle. So, chamber music events with a substantial number of empty seats will be a given for the coming 3 years.

Seat Selection

For a change, this was not a concert that I reviewed for Bachtrack, so my wife and I bought ourselves two tickets, wanting to see what the concert experience is from the top row on the stage gallery (pianist side). I must say: we were both very pleased with these seats (especially given that they are sold at the lowest price). Yes, we looked at the piano from the back, so one would expect a shift in balance. However, also the violinist was playing away from us, too, so that should rectify the balance issue. In addition, we found the acoustics to work so well that we did not really feel any acoustic disadvantage. And we could watch Yuja’s hands playing—with preference to her left hand, which most people in the audience have a hard time observing.

In addition, not having anybody behind us, allowed me to follow the scores on my iPad (using the excellent ForScore app) with more brightness than usual, without fearing to disturb neighbors in the back.

A Program Change

The doors were closed (except that there were a few late-comers), but the concert started with a delay. About 8 minutes after the published time, there was an announcement stating that “due to a small technical problem”, there was a little delay, and the artists would start with the Schubert Fantasy, rather than Janáček’s Violin Sonata. Further announcements would be made by the artists (which actually did not happen). After another 3 minutes, the artists appeared and started playing.

Program changes with Yuja Wang are nothing new (also in the concert back on 2014-09-14 she asked for one piece to be replaced by another one). What I found a bit puzzling, though, was the excuse with a “technical problem”. Strictly speaking, “technical” problems could only affect the violin. But then, why could Kavakos play the Schubert? Did he or Yuja forget the Janáček sheet music in their hotel room? With all her traveling, Yuja Wang must be a well-organized artist, so I doubt that she would forget sheet music.

This duo recital was the second one in a series of eight that the artists are giving all over Europe, so the program must be well-prepared. Artistic differences could hardly have been the problem, can they? Actually, the performance in the first two pieces left me with some doubts. Something didn’t seem quite right here…

Yuja Wang & Leonidas Kavakos, schedule (source: Facebook)
Yuja Wang & Leonidas Kavakos, tour schedule (source: Facebook)

Schubert: Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, op.posth.159, D.934

I have discussed recordings of the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, op.posth.159, D.934, by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) in an earlier posting; rather than reiterating that, I’m just giving the list of movements, which are typically played attacca:

  1. Andante molto
  2. Allegretto
  3. Andantino
  4. Tempo I – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

This is Schubert’s last work for violin and piano. It appeared in print only after the composer’s death. I have discussed a performance of this Fantasy in a concert on 2017-06-11.

The Performance

Throughout this duo recital, the violinist played on the pianist side of the concert grand, such that both artists could maintain at least marginal contact using peripheral vision, while the f-holes of the violin were facing the audience.

I. Andante molto

The Fantasy starts with piano tremoli, into which the violin gradually “sneaks” in. I found Yuja Wang’s tone to be singing, subtle, throughout the movement. Maybe occasionally she was at the upper limit with the sustain pedal. With the exception of the Andantino, where Schubert writes “Con Pedale“, there are no pedal annotations in the entire Fantasy. One can assume that the composer relied upon “common practice” for achieving legato, and to make the instrument sound best. However, I feel that with an instrument such as the Steinway D in this concert, the sustain pedal ought to be used (more) sparingly, considering the faster fading on period instruments.

On the other hand, I noted that throughout the recital, Yuja Wang not only used light articulation and diligent dynamics, but that in addition she frequently used the shift pedal, in order to expand the dynamics towards the soft end, and in order not to cover the violin sound: much appreciated!

As for the violin: strangely, I had the feeling that Kavakos was constantly holding back, rather slowing down: the movement lacked flow, felt rather static. On the positive side, I concede that Leonidas Kavakos’ intonation was flawless over the entire range, up to the fines whistling tones that Schubert uses so frequently in this Fantasy.

II. Allegretto

This movement (2/4 time) was fairly disappointing. Already the base tempo was too slow, felt like an Andante at most. On top of that, Kavakos seemed to hold back, play defensively, especially in the initial theme, but also later in this segment. the music lacked drive, was static, sometimes seemed to be idling / plodding along without joy.

Yuja Wang on the other hand did not (could not) correct the tempo, but her accompaniment remained light, transparent, always leaving enough space for the violin, though very diligent dynamics.

III. Andantino

Very subtle playing on the piano, nice phrasing, agogics—excellent. Sadly, also here, the violin sometimes again seemed to be holding back in the pace. The basic tempo seemed slow for an Andantino, static, even though Yuja Wang occasionally seemed to make subtle attempts towards a slighty faster pace, e.g., towards the ff climax in the theme. The first variation (staccato) showed slightly more attack, was less static. In variation 2 (pizzicato) listening to Yuja Wang’s piano accompaniment was pure joy, as despite the many scales with busy accompaniment, she never oppressed the violin pizzicato. Here, a lightly slower pace is definitely OK.

The basic approach to Variation 3 (demisemiquavers in the violin, throughout) was OK, but the two artists didn’t seem to be completely “in tune” with respect to agogics. In Variation 4, the piano initially takes the lead role, with a singing tone (nice cantilena), excellent legato playing, again subtle dynamics, good overall phrasing, then handing the control to the violin for its short, flowing cadenza.

IV. Tempo I – Allegro vivace – Allegretto – Presto

For the Tempo I see above. The Allegro vivace (alla breve) unfortunately was again very heavy, if not clumsy. It simply wasn’t Allegro, let alone vivace. I liked the marked accents and the contrapuntal elements in Yuja’s left hand, though. But overall, the performance was too static.

With all the criticism, though, I should also note that this Fantasy is not just technically difficult, but even more challenging in terms of interpretation: one must not underestimate Schubert’s last chamber music composition!

Janáček: Violin Sonata

Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) wrote his Violin Sonata in 1914. Its first performance only happened in 1922. The sonata has four movements:

  1. Con moto (3/4, 3/4 = 60)
  2. Ballada: Con moto (3/8, ♪ = 100)
  3. Allegretto (3/4, ♩= 112) — Meno mosso (3/8, ♪ = 132) — Tempo I (2/4)
  4. Adagio (12/8, 3/8 = 69) — Poco mosso (2/4, ♩= 72) — Poco più mosso, rubato con crescente emozione (4/4, ♩= 80) — MaestosoAdagio (♩= 66) — Tempo I (12/8, 3/4 = 69)

I have reviewed other artists’ performances of this sonata in earlier concerts in Zurich and Schaffhausen.

The Performance

I. Con moto

The basic pace was as specified, but the rhythm was too straight. Already the ad libitum introduction on the violin felt far too metric. This continued in the a tempo section (with the tremoli on the piano), which (especially / primarily in the violin part) felt metric, pushed, lacked all atmosphere. This movement is usually so typical of Janáček! There was too much urging, not enough time for agogics, for the “Slavonic rhythmic leeway”. Yuja Wang did better in that respect. However, overall, this didn’t sound like a “joint”, coherent interpretation.

There were also moments when the intonation on the violin was marginal in this movement—more than what one might attribute to emotional vibrato?

II. Ballada: Con moto

This movement was the first time in this recital that I was fairly happy with the interpretation: there was atmosphere, excellent dynamic balance. It was a consistent performance that gave the impression of a joint effort. Maybe the crescendi in the pp dolcissimo were a tad too expressive?

III. AllegrettoMeno mossoTempo I

In the expressive, eruptive parts, the piano was maybe at the upper limit in its power, almost covering the violin. Also the vibrato was at the upper limit, extremely emotional. But then, so is this short movement. The last movement followed quasi attacca.

IV. AdagioPoco mossoPoco più mosso, rubato con crescente emozioneMaestosoAdagioTempo I

It’s interesting that in the outer parts, the composer writes feroce, but at the same time specifies con sordino for those vehement interjections. The latter softens the tone, almost prevents the feroce (wild) aspect. Kavakos’ mute certainly muted fairly strongly. But I guess that that’s what Janáček asked for! The melodic central part was definitely beautifully played. I really liked this! One last quibble: the feroce interjections on the violin end with a short, soft (p) “echo”. I think that with these echoes, Leonidas Kavakos slightly exaggerated the dynamics a bit. At the end, this is definitely pp and morendo. HOwever, in the previous instances, I don’t think it is quite right to read Janáček’s p as ppp, at least in a venue that is at the upper size limit for chamber music.

Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor, L.140

The Violin Sonata in G minor, L.140, by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), is one of a set of six sonatas that the composer planned and started writing in 1915. These sonatas were meant as homage to French composers of the 18th century. Ultimately, the composer’s death prevented the completion of this project, which now features just three sonatas:

  • A Sonata for Cello and Piano, L.135 (1915)
  • the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, L.137 (1915)
  • the one played in this concert, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, L.140 (1917)

The latter sonata has three movements:

  1. Allegro vivo
  2. Intermède: Fantasque et léger
  3. Finale: Très animé

The premiere of this sonata was on 1917-05-05, with the violinist Gaston Poulet (1892 – 1974), and with the composer at the piano. This was Debussy’s last public performance.

The Performance

I. Allegro vivo

Good tempo here: for the first time that evening I felt that both artists were “at home” in this music. Some minor points: After the Meno mosso, there are two inverse mordents which were barely noticeable—it would not have hurt to make these more prominent. Then, there are two long pp flageolets (on non-empty strings) in this movement which were hardly audible as such. Either the violin didn’t project well in our direction (i.e., backwards), or maybe bigger venues require slightly more volume for these two instances?

II. Intermède: Fantasque et léger

Excellent, light and transparent piano playing, with highly agile accentuation. In the violin part, some of the explicit glissandi could have been more prominent. On the other hand, Kavakos started the Au Movement in bar #9 with two glissandi, where Debussy writes none, according to my score. On the other hand, I really liked the violin cadenza at the end of the movement—elegant, nice playing!

III. Finale: Très animé

This movement seemed to suit both artists extremely well: the highly agile, virtuosic and transparent piano part with differentiated dynamics, the virtuosic violin part, full of rubato, rapid, often rocket-like scales and figures. Maybe the triplets in [2], prior to Molto ritenuto (11 bars prior to [3]) were a bit too inégal? The movement also allowed the violinist really to show off the powerful tone, the excellent sound and projection of his Stradivarius instrument. That applause was well-deserved!

Bartók: Violin Sonata No.1 in C♯ minor, op.21, Sz.75 / BB 84

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) wrote his Violin Sonata No.1 in C♯ minor, op.21, Sz.75 / BB 84 in 1921. This is one of only two sonatas for violin and piano that Bartók wrote—No.2 (Sz.76 / BB 85) followed in 1922. The Sonata No.1 has three movements:

  1. Allegro appassionato
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro

I have added some description / personal impressions to the performance notes below.

The Performance

I. Allegro appassionato

An excellent rendering of this sonata: this is a real challenge, both technically, as well as in the interpretation—but not for these artists. Where other highlight the dissonances in Bartók’s score, Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos offered an enthralling, rhapsodic performance that had atmosphere and brought out the melodic aspects. This way, one almost forgot about the dissonances in this music! Needless to say that Yuja Wang was technically (and musically) brilliant, very impressive in this music! Also, Kavakos’ intonation was excellent throughout this movement.

As a little aside: when asked about the most dispensable part of the modern concert grand, most pianists would not hesitate to name the middle (third) pedal. However, Bartók’s sonata has plenty of instances where the middle (“sostenuto”) pedal is a necessity, unless you have someone to hold down certain bass keys while the left hand is busy otherwise!

II. Adagio

A very subtle interpretation, starting with a beautiful solo cantilena on the violin (not tonal, but still beautiful nevertheless!). The piano part appeared mostly arpeggiated. In parts, Bartók explicitly had this in the score. However, there are numerous instances where one would (almost) need Rachmaninoff’s hands to play the wide chords, especially in the left hand. I liked the calm, serene atmosphere in this performance, the large dynamic arches. The serene atmosphere persists also through the more agitated middle section, where Yuja’s right hand has rapid broken chords, while the left hand remains absolutely steady, calm, also while going through Bartók’s explicit rubato. Very subtle playing, indeed, and once more with excellent intonation on the violin!

III. Allegro

Very, extremely virtuosic playing—brilliant, at least technically. Many would say, it was equally brilliant musically. For my personal taste, it was a bit on the fast side, occasionally too light, too elegant. To me, this movement has many elements of Hungarian folk music, especially in rhythm. And so, the performance lacked a bit of the “Slavonic trait”, which would require somewhat “heavier agogics”. Yes, there was some of this—but I expected more… Also, at this tempo, it was hard for the listener to capture the details in Bartók’s score. Unless one was really familiar with the music, of course.

However, if you were looking for a technically brilliant, astounding performance: here it was!


The fans may not agree with me—but in my opinion, the first part of the concert was pretty much of a flop. Something was not “right” here. The true qualities of the artists only showed up after the intermission: Both the Debussy and the Bartók sonatas were really convincing, brilliant even.

Images © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved. Do not reuse, copy, etc.

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