It was a no-nonsense start to a no-nonsense gig. Leonidas Kavakos, Enrico Pace and a page turner strode onto the stage under the watchful eyes of the eighteen plaster-and-mosaic muses that surround the stage at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana, settled at their instruments and launched at a swift canter into the presto of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 4 in A minor. The lighting people were clearly caught off guard: we were a dozen bars in before the house lights were dimmed.

Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace © Antoni Bofill
Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace
© Antoni Bofill

This concert of three Beethoven sonatas was promoted very much as a one man show, with a giant picture of Kavakos – as was the pair's CD set of the sonata cycle, released three years ago to critical acclaim. But that misrepresents the nature of the music: in these works, the violin and piano are equal partners. The melody is traded between the two instruments, sometimes so artfully that you forget for a moment which instrument is carrying it. When the violin is not playing melody, it is accompanying the pianist with a number of styles familiar from folk music: a long held double stop, a repeated set of four note figures or a series of little interjections.

Without taking anything away from Kavakos’s fine violin playing, the eye opener of this concert was the piano playing of Pace. I loved the way that he produced sustained melody from ripples of notes, with the level of dynamics continually adjusted so that the piano was at precisely the same level as the violin at the point where the lead changes over. I could even sense him getting the feel of the hall: the first couple of changeovers weren’t quite spot on, the rest of the evening was. I loved the timbre that he achieved in the mid range and higher notes: each individual note coming out with bell-like clarity, but the whole merging into the smoothest legato.

Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace © Antoni Bofill
Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace
© Antoni Bofill
Both performers shaped their phrases wonderfully, employing the subtlest shifts in dynamic contour. While Beethoven’s music isn’t necessarily associated with the word “subtle”,  often being played with emphasis on the Romantic Sturm und Drang, here, the music was being played with grace, refinement and infinite variation: very much a classical reading rather than a Romantic one.

Kavakos appealed most in the long-breathed legato passages. The last movement of the Sonata no. 4 was a delicious example, as was the most famous passage of the evening: the first movement of the Sonata no. 5 in F major “Spring”. This was a tour de force from both performers in bringing the best out of a melody, passing it between each other, varying it, wandering off on a diversion until the melody returns like an old friend. The second movement was truly music to soothe a troubled soul; the short scherzo well executed and delightfully quirky. And although all the music in this concert very much conformed to classical form, you could never complain of monotony of mood: neat double stops and a smooth Bach-like chord progression in the Sonata no. 10 in G major gave way to a passage that was cheerful to the point of being jaunty, followed by dreamy loveliness in the second movement. In its fourth movement, we heard Kavakos notching up the intensity of the accenting for the first time of the evening.

This wasn’t a flawless performance, but it’s easy to forgive half a dozen slight squeaks and hesitations in over an hour of music. If I have one complaint about the performance, it’s that I would have wished for more abandon and heavier sforzandi: the emphasis on refined elegance was a fraction too far for me. But that’s a very personal view: without question, this was music making of the very highest order, in a hall whose bright and clear acoustic was perfectly suited to the style of performance.

We may not be living in the era of greatest harmony between Greece and Germany, but this concert was an event to bely that, providing a rare treat to anyone from any nation.

*****