For his last performance as artist-in-residence with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leonidas Kavakos chose Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. Shostakovich wrote his first violin concerto around 1948, right before his subjugation by the Stalin’s Communist Party through the Zhdanov decree. David Oistrakh, to whom it was dedicated, eventually premiered the piece in 1955 after Stalin's death. Kavakos' superlative performance tonight should be remembered as a highpoint in the RCO's history. After the break, Valery Gergiev returned with a beautiful rendition of a selection of Wagner's orchestral highlights. While the Russian Maestro impressed with the German's Romantic sumptuousness, he could not reach the musical heights of the Athenian.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve
The evening belonged to Kavakos, as his immaculate Shostakovich eclipsed his excellent performances of Brahms and Berg earlier this season. During those concertos, it felt as if he was part of the orchestra, never trying to stand-out, but tonight Gergiev led the RCO in such a way that all the focus was on Kavakos. He captivated his audience by his ceaseless suspense, rarely permitting himself to be distracted by the orchestra. In the Nocturne, he brought out dramatic calm from the fragile notes, creating a mysterious atmosphere highlighted by the celesta, while the harp contrasted the unsettling notes with warm colours. Seemingly relaxed, he evoked all the tense undercurrents from Shostakovich’s music.

In the second movement, Kavakos remained composed on stage, intensely focused (eyes closed), expressionless, while his violin burst with thrilling energy. In the background, the low registers of the wind section pulsated encouragingly. Gergiev maneuvered the rhythmic complexities with seeming ease, never too loud, always in the background of the soloist. As the tempo increased, the Greek fiddler became more physical in his expression. After the exhausting Scherzo concluded, the audience gasped audibly and a grinning Kavakos removed the loose hairs from the bow of his Stradivarius.

Several years ago at the Concertgebouw, Kavakos performed this work with the Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra to great delight. But where Chailly produced a polished Shostakovich from his ensemble, Gergiev coaxed a fierceness from the RCO. This was especially true for the last two movements connected by Kavakos’ captivating performance of the cadenza. Marinus Komst opened the Passacaglia with sharp ruffling on the timpani, and the brass provided golden glow to the celli. Kavakos produced weeping high notes contrasting with the burps and belches from the bassoon and tuba, which all strangely culminated in a sense of triumphant heroism.

He began the exquisite cadenza, highly charged and utterly moving. While remaining composed, the solo allowed for him to demonstrate all his technical virtuosity and emotive musicianship. Then Gergiev seamlessly launched into the Burlesque exploring its giddy percussive energy, as Mark Braafhart created twinkling colours on the xylophone. Surprisingly, Kavakos became visibly excited as Gergiev propelled the RCO through the folksy finale. Just like his Berg concerto, tonight's performances of Shostakovich by Kavakos was the best I've ever experienced live. After a very long applause, the Greek fiddler returned for an encore from Bach’s Sonaten und Partiten.

Following the intermission, Gergiev returned with a potpourri of Wagner’s orchestral greatest hits. The warm colours and lush textures comforted the ears after the incisive Shostakovich. He opened with the “Prelude” and “Karfreitagszauber” from Parsifal. From the slow burning Love Feast Motif, throughout the undulating crescendi and diminuendi, Gergiev sustained great sensual tension through the vibrato from the red glowing strings. Later, Jörgen van Rijen triumphed with his fellow trombone players in the Faith motif. With the “Tagesgrauen” and “Siegfried’s Rheinfart” from Götterdämmerung, Gergiev introduced some pulsating rhythms with the spotlight on Ken Hakii, who had a rare solo passage on his viola, brimming with energy. Then a horn echoed lonely off stage, behind a half open door atop the red stairs. The Russian Maestro ended the evening, visibly enjoying the Romantic lyricism and optimism from the “Vorspiel” of Wagner’s only comedy Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg.