Debussy once claimed that these two instruments were “fundamentally incompatible”... which did not stop him writing a sonata for them. In their Wigmore Hall recital, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang offered a programme of one classical work and three sonatas completed between 1915 and 1922, including the Debussy. They began with Janáček’s Sonata of 1922. This piece had a long genesis, straddling the First World War, and echoes other works written around then, especially Katya Kabanova. It is unfamiliar still, but from its opening Con moto could not be by anyone else. The speech-like idiom and terse motifs, so familiar from the operas, might have sounded a little more idiomatic at times than they did here. The performance was certainly beautiful, which isn’t always quite the point in Janáček.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

The composer wrote of one interpreter of this work “In the first movement there is a passage where the violin has soft notes piano…Fachiri brought these long notes alive as if a soul had no rest and the piano followed her in those crescendos and decrescendos.” I wonder if these players knew that letter? Certainly they were one restless soul in this passage, responding closely to each other. The second movement Ballada, another con moto, was ideally poised, and the Allegretto’s fragmentary nature was made to cohere effectively. The pentatonic shadings of that Allegretto made early commentators think of Debussy, to which an irritated Janáček wrote “I had already propagated chordal freedom before Debussy and I haven’t the slightest need for French impressionism.” Oh dear, if rival modernists are going to clash over who came first with what, best to turn back to the Viennese classics, and some inoffensive Schubert.

It cannot be often one looks at an upcoming mixed programme which contains a piece of late Schubert nearly half an hour long and feels it might be the weakest item, but that can be the case with this Fantasy of 1827, which is not always on the shortlist of Schubertians’ favourite works. Schubert had no great interest in virtuosity, it is said, but there are display elements, not least the central variations on the song Sei mir gegrüsst. It is a work which needs wholehearted advocacy, and Kavakos held the attention throughout, relishing its contrasting sections, and the display opportunities afforded by those variations were thrown off with great aplomb. Wang too took her opportunities, and gave a real lift to the dance rhythms.

The second half launched with the one unquestioned masterpiece in the programme, Debussy’s Sonata in G minor from 1917, his last work. The opening Allegro vivo might have been a bit more vivo at times perhaps, but Debussy does quite often lapse into languor, not least in the middle section, played on the fingerboard, which turns the theme into a breathy intimation, nicely accomplished by Kavakos. The central Intermède, marked Fantasque et léger, had plenty of caprice and whimsy without seeming insubstantial. The finale was certainly très animé as Debussy directs, not least the theme he referred to as “winding around itself like a snake that bites its own tail”. Debussy once warned us “don’t trust any piece that seems to float on gossamer wings, it might have been cooked up in the dark depths of a sick mind”. Written by a dying man, and with quicksilver invention that is curiously difficult to bring off, Debussy’s sonata here had its high status reaffirmed.

Béla Bartók's big three movement First Sonata from 1921 also has elements of a Debussian legacy in its hints of a whole-tone scale, but it is all subsumed into a bracingly spiky Magyar manner. One approach to Debussy’s claim of incompatibility between violin and piano is to make a virtue of it and give each instrument its own material, as Bartók does in the first movement. The piano part has a cimbalom-like effect at times, where Wang brought out the folk roots. The pianist indeed was dazzlingly virtuosic whenever the score gave her the limelight. These two can’t play together that often, I imagine, since they both have such busy solo careers, and they both used scores throughout. But in this work, Kavakos and Wang, natives of Greece and China, sounded born and bred in Budapest.

The recital began notionally at 7:30pm but the first notes were heard at 7:40, and the last notes of the programme sounded at about 9:50. (See David Karlin’s recent Bachtrack opinion piece on concert lengths and timings). But a packed Wigmore Hall (returns only) demanded an encore nonetheless, and the duo obliged with another early modernist composer – the first of Szymanowski’s Mythes, “The Fountain of Arethusa”, its hothouse chromaticism adding another to the varied voices of the early 20th century’s response to Debussy’s challenge.