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REVIEW: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang: two experts in complete control of their music

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
November 12, 2021

La Jolla Music Society concert featured beautiful Bach, bravura Busoni and shattering Shostakovich

The faster someone can play an instrument, the greater they are.

That’s a fallacy many nonmusicians believe. They equate speed and agility with talent.

While it’s true that it can take years of practice to effortlessly fire off hundreds of sixteenth notes, that mere ability does not make someone a supreme musician.

Pianist Yuja Wang is known for performing flashy works by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. Some fans at the Balboa Theatre Wednesday evening may have been disappointed to hear her play delicate melodies by J.S. Bach or skeletal octaves in Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata.

As someone who studied piano for almost 20 years, trust me — her playing was at a rarefied level far beyond anything most pianists could ever hope to achieve.

Under the auspices of the La Jolla Music Society, she shared the stage with an equally gifted violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, performing sonatas by Bach, Busoni and Shostakovich.

The concert opened with Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E major, BWV 1016, the second half with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014. Authentic performance purists may have been aghast at performing Bach on an equal-tempered piano, instead of the plucked timbre and compressed dynamics of a harpsichord, crystalline melodies and quiet bass lines issued from Wang’s piano. She clearly brought out each line in the keyboard part, all in radiant, singing tones.

The ease with which Kavakos played was deceptive in its clean, simple beauty. It may not have sounded virtuosic, but his performance was music-making of the highest order. Take those double stops in the Sonata No. 3 — perfectly in tune and sensitively phrased.

The music of Ferrucio Busoni is rarely encountered in the U.S. outside of piano recitals, and even then one is more likely to hear one of his arrangements of Bach than an original composition. His Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, Opus 36a was written at the end of the 19th century, a good decade after the genre had its last major hurrahs with Brahms and Franck.

In three movements played without pause, it traverses a long arc from melancholy to aggressive assertion leading into a demonic tarantella and ending with a triumphant set of variations on a Bach chorale — the first time a large-scale composition integrated a Bach quotation into its musical fabric.

Attendees hoping to hear Kavakos and Wang play a dramatic, virtuosic work had their wish granted in the duo’s bravura rendition of Busoni’s sonata that closed the first half.

Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 134 is programmed more than Busoni, but performances are infrequent. I suspect this is due to long passages without any overt virtuosity, its gloomy desolate textures and a more chromatic vocabulary. It has none of the irony of the composer’s earlier works, and despite a furious dance movement, its overall tone is bleak and despairing. It is the work of someone sensing death is near.

Kavakos and Wang captured the sonata’s eeriness and its intensity. Kavakos, who elsewhere on the program played with such beauty, was shockingly brusque and harsh in the second movement, with both performers fiercely virtuosic. The passacaglia theme that Kavakos plucked out in the third movement were some of the loudest, driest pizzicatos I have ever heard in a large hall.

Following the last threadbare notes, the audience seemed stunned. No one wanted to clap to break the mood. When applause finally burst out, it was loud and well-earned. The audience wanted an encore, but Kavakos and Wang declined. Nothing could follow that profound experience without seeming trivial.