Every now and then, two phenomenal artists – Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang – interrupt their wondrous and busy careers to join forces as a duo in an Antaeus-like gesture that seems to renew their energy and enthusiasm for music-making. Back at Carnegie Hall for the beginning of a multi-city American tour, they put together a programme juxtaposing one of JS Bach’s sonatas with two later ones that, stylistically different, make evident the far-reaching impact of his works.

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall
© Stephanie Berger

Truth be told, the rendition of Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in E major, BWV1016 was – between rhythmic discrepancies and piano phrases that lacked shape – less successful than one would have hoped. Nevertheless, the rest of the programme brought back the outstanding chemistry between these two protagonists. Despite their different backgrounds or the alleged temperamental dichotomy between an introverted Kavakos and an exuberant Wang, violinist and pianist constantly gave the impression of being in full accord with respect to the musical values they intended to mine.

The recital’s central place was taken by the Sonata for Violin no. 2 in E minor by Ferruccio Busoni, a composer whose output is still considered by many a by-product of a brilliant pianist’s ambition to tackle other creative endeavours when he had nothing more to prove as an interpreter. Both anchored in tradition (its tripartite structure similar to Beethoven’s Op.109 piano sonata) and including daring harmonic ambiguities, full of dark thoughts and irony, the music, foretelling Busoni’s mature style, deserves to be played more often. From the pensive first theme of the slow first movement, to the sparkling tarantella, to the long, contemplative finale – a theme-and-variations based on a chorale, Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen, from Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena – Kavakos and Wang brought out details of great beauty. The rhythmic vitality in the second movement and a mysterious and gloomy variation in the last were especially noticeable. 

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang
© Stephanie Berger

Also in three movements, and similarly starting with a slow introduction and finishing with a series of dark variations on a sober theme, Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata was composed for the 60th birthday of the great violinist David Oistrakh, with whom the composer had a particularly close relationship. Nevertheless, the music is far from being celebratory; on the contrary, as our two interpreters made abundantly clear, this late work is full of angst and grimness. Conveying a sense of fury turning into desperation, the rough central Allegretto sounded like a true Danse macabre. In the solemn outer movements, one could hear the tolling of funeral bells. Like Busoni, Shostakovich had a deep understanding of musical history and Kavakos and Wang detailed his late interest in the twelve-tone scale and the omnipresent shadow of Bach’s fugal work in the two slow movements. In their exquisite interplay, they focused on rendering a full gamut of colour and timbral ranges, from dark-hued melodic lines to percussive gestures, and from exceptionally tender statements to virtuosic bursts.

A single encore – Dithyrambe the last movement from Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant – was a very appropriate codicil for an evening that featured music floating between tradition and novelty.