One of the delights of instrumental recitals is their unpredictability. There is an element of challenge that all types have in common, however. How do you achieve the levels of excitement that retain the audience's attention with merely one or two performers on stage?

Leonidas Kavakos © Yannis Bournias
Leonidas Kavakos
© Yannis Bournias

Friday morning's Queen's Hall recital was a potentially interesting mix of mainly 20th century works, with a nod in the direction of classicism. There were many empty seats, so perhaps the programme lacked popular appeal. Leonidas Kavakos and Nikolai Lugansky began their recital with Janàček's Violin Sonata, a work the composer first sketched in 1880, but only completed and published in 1922. There is much in common with his operatic writing and the top line of his string quartets, especially the recurring oscillating figures. Despite opting to keep the lid fully open, at no stage did the piano threaten to overwhelm the violin and thus we reaped the full benefit of Lugansky's sonorous accompanying. Kavakos has a fairly wide vibrato which he seems to switch on and off at will, but which nevertheless remains the same. The final movement was the most successful of the three. It involved frequent use of the mute which created the marvellous effect of a third voice on stage. This is clearly a piece that deserves to be better known and one which, by defying intuitive interpretation, set the intellectual tone for the whole recital.

Brahms' Violin Sonata No 1 in G, Op 78 is an essential work in any violinist's repertoire and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It is mature and lyrical, derived from Brahms' song Das Regenlied and full of rhythmic, textural and tonal interplay, with flashes of flamboyant virtuosity. By marking the beginning as mezzo voce and expressly indicating no rise in volume until the first forte, the composer is clearly preparing the way for the first impassioned release of emotion. Kavakos began quietly enough, almost nonchalantly, in a tempo that was very relaxed. But where was the passionate outburst? The playing was so tightly controlled, so restrained, that the audience were just longing to hear the performers let rip, if only for an instant. After all, Kavakos has won prizes for his version of the Sibelius concerto. If this entire recital was a trial between passion and restraint, the former consistently came off worse. In the second movement, the double-stopped chords and pianissimo ending were absolute perfection, but they came in the wake of such understated playing, that their effect was all but lost. They may have had pressing engagements elsewhere, but several members of the audience did not return for the second half.

Stravinsky only began to compose significantly for the violin after forming his friendship with Samuel Dushkin during the 1930s. The two musicians got along so well that in addition to the Violin Concerto, Stravinsky was also inspired to compose his Duo Concertant. The composer wrote of the work having been inspired by the poets of antiquity, but its five movement form, including dance-like sequences, is closer to some of the instrumental suites of the eighteenth century. In particular, the parody of a jig in the 4th movement is full of bustling humour. The piece is technically demanding for both players - not music for amateurs - and requires sensitive control of balance and dynamics. This the performers undoubtedly achieved, but neither the restless piano figures under sustained double-stopping, nor the violinist's flying perpetuum mobile) managed to thrill. The lady on my left allowed her eyes to close and her chin to fall onto her chest. Two youngsters in the row in front began to snore gently, missing the brief moments of genuine, committed passion before the piece drew to a tranquil close.

The final work in the programme was the Violin Sonata in B minor by Respighi. This is not a sonata that enjoys anything like the popularity of the Brahms and since its première in 1918, it has struggled to find a place in the repertoire. Not even Heifetz, who championed the work, could give it a significant boost. A modern performance is therefore a rarity to be treasured. The piece has more in common with the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century. It is lush, melodic and rooted in the tradition of Schuman and Brahms. In the first movement, the violin seemed to speculate melodically in a dreamy, chromatic way, Kavakos at last producing a big, direct sound when required and turning on the passion that had been missing earlier. In the andante, volume was generated more by the speed of the bow rather than pressure, the two performers matching each other admirably in terms of tone and rubato. The finale, a passacaglia, marked energico, conveyed a sense of urgency and drive, bringing the piece to a forceful conclusion. Not even this rousing burst could tempt sections of the audience to stay for an unfamiliar but tuneful encore. Their powers of concentration were exhausted and only the enthusiasts remained.

If you ask string players which qualities are most desirable in an instrument, projection will be high on the list. Never mind tone quality or how musically you play, if you cannot be heard, your efforts are in vain. Kavakos's Strad never let him down in this respect - it handled like a Ferrari! But a sports car driven with the hand-brake applied will only go as fast as an old saloon, and while this competent duo carried out a workmanlike job, we seldom felt the wind in our hair.

***11