Though many classical artists and organizations are marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth during the 2019-20 season, few are doing it with the gusto of Leonidas Kavakos.
On Oct. 18, the Greek violinist, whose career has soared in the decades since he won three major competitions over three years, is releasing an all-Beethoven disc on Sony Classical. Performing with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, he serves as soloist and conducts the composer’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, one of the most oft-performed works in that form. The album also includes the composer’s Septet, Op. 20, and selections from the composer’s Variations on Folk Songs with pianist Enrico Pace.
In addition, Kavakos is performing this concerto with an array of orchestras, including the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy; the Vienna Symphony and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, and is presenting series of Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas in places including the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan.
Chicago is sharing in Kavakos’ Beethoven bounty as well. He will serve as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Riccardo Muti, in concerts Nov. 1, 2 and 5 of the composer’s Violin Concerto. In addition, he will team with pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for three of Beethoven’s piano trios as part of a SCP Chamber Music Series recital March 2.
“To my surprise, there have been quite a few promoters who have tried to stay away from Beethoven this season, which I find a little strange in the sense the he is one of the most important giants in the musical era,” he said. “It cannot be just overlooked. He is celebrated every year more or less, because every year throughout the season is a lot of this music played everywhere around the world. So it’s not like he has been abandoned and he deserves more attention. But at the same time, when a big anniversary comes, I feel like we ought to pay our respects to this huge mind and and huge heart, who blessed us with such incredible music.”
Because Kavakos’ new recording is coming out just as the Beethoven celebration is ramping up, he wanted it to be devoted completely to the composer. “This is my tribute, my paying my respects to the master,” he said. Then it was a question of what to put on the disc. It was obvious that the violin concerto, which he believes stands alongside that by Johannes Brahms as the two greatest creations for the form, should be featured.
“For Beethoven, it is one of his most unusual pieces in the sense that it is also one of the most serene work,” he said. “Of course, it has its martial-like moments, but all in all, it is a piece that is very serene, very lyrical.” In playing it, Kavakos said, the big issue is balancing being what he called “too correct” and making sure “the huge heart of the man” comes through.
Kavakos has already recorded all of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, and he didn’t want to include any of the composer’s famed string quartets, because he feels like those should be left to the ensembles that devote themselves to that repertoire. “But there is other chamber music that is wonderful, and one of the pieces that is wonderful is definitely the Septet, which I’ve played many times in the past.”
The work, which was completed and first performed in 1800, is written for clarinet, French horn, bassoon, violin, violin, cello and double bass. “It’s a fantastic combination,” Kavakos said. “It’s like a small orchestra. Practically the only element missing is percussion. And the music that comes in this piece is very fresh. His improvisational skills are very, very obvious, in the variations and throughout the piece.”
Rounding out the album is what Kavakos calls “quite an unusual choice”: selections from the two sets of Variations on Folk Songs, Op. 105 and 107, which were commissioned by Scottish music publisher George Thomson and written for flute or violin. “We hear a very simple tune, and then he just plays with it with certain variations,” he said. “Not very long but quite effective. What I find fascinating is that almost in every one of them, there are one or two moments where you hear that kind of incredible depth and wisdom and talent, which is scary, which comes from somewhere else. It can be a modulation, a dynamic contrast or a moment in the melody. In every one of these songs on the CD, there is one of these moments when one can hear this great, great genius in his mature period. I found this was a very nice way to present Beethoven in his late work.”