It is strangely unusual that one gets to hear all three of Johannes Brahms’ sonatas for violin and piano live in one same evening. That should, in and of itself, be enough to lure anyone into a music hall. When the onus of bringing them to life is on Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, containing the curiosity becomes an insurmountable task.

On paper, Kavakos and Wang appear far from being an obvious match. Their approach to music differs widely – hers forever impulsive, his endlessly meticulous – and neither have made a particular point of devoting significant time of their careers to Brahms. Or rather, they had not until now. Still fresh from appearances in Athens, Amsterdam or London, following Madrid they will tour the US and Canada, Brahms either entirely or partially present in all their joint recitals. A recent Decca release with the three sonatas is further testimony to their commitment to the German composer.

Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos © Benjamin Ealovega
Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos
© Benjamin Ealovega

The placid opening of the First Sonata – Op.78 in his catalogue, and composed right after his First Symphony and his Violin Concerto no less – gave both performers an opportunity to warm the audience up and display a sense of togetherness that would only get more noticeable as the concert developed. This is such limpid music that it is only too easy to overlook its complexity, even more so when Kavakos and Wang played flawlessly, not a note out of place, proving their respective techniques are rock solid. But of course nothing is ever straightforward in Brahms. The endless succession of contrasts that follows was approached with musicianship and clarity, and the sonata structure of the movement stood out nicely, notwithstanding the necessary nuances. Wang set the stage nicely for the second movement, with Kavakos adding nostalgic lines above. There was some remarkable depth to their dialogue, filled with carefully interwoven melodies. The third movement was rich too, with more questions posed than answers given, as this music calls for.

G major gave way to A major of the Second Sonata, composed at another particularly prolific time, the summer of 1886. It was during that period that an invigorated Brahms also composed his luscious Cello Sonata no. 2 in F major – the second and last of his sonatas for the instrument – and his intense Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor. In between the two sits his Op.100, the Violin Sonata no. 2 in A major. He must have been deeply inspired by Thun, in Switzerland, where he was staying at the time, as he famously went as far as saying that the place was “so full of melodies that one has to be careful not to step on any”. Kavakos and Wang relied on each other with astonishing trust, undeterred by the off-beat rhythmic accents and the endless technical difficulties. Kavakos’ lower register in the third movement was particularly gratifying, his 1724 ‘Abergavenny’ Stradivarius clearly in perfect shape and he clearly knows how to get the best out of his magnificent instrument.

If the first two sonatas made quite an impression, the epic third, in the diametrically opposed universe of D minor, found its way straight under the skin. It was as if there was nothing else to prove – there was not – and both musicians could just open the floodgates and play, no holding back required. The force of nature that is the first movement Allegro of this sonata came out in all three dimensions – raw, romantic and inquisitive – leading to that genius conclusion of the movement, with the end of one phrase juxtaposing with the beginning of the next. The double stops of the second movement were acutely precise and solidly supported by the piano. The third and fourth movement flew past, the relentless perfectionist Brahms showing at every bar. Over an hour of music had gone by and Kavakos and Wang had not looked at each other once while playing. They did not seem to need to.

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