Several years ago, attending an evening of Brahms sonatas played by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, I kept wondering how two artists that share an impeccable technique but otherwise have a very different background appeared to be one single, fully integrated musical "organism". Luckily, they continued to collaborate and what, at that point, seemed to be a yet unfulfilled promise has now become a certitude: Wang and Kavakos are one of the top piano-violin duos in today’s classical music.

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

Their most recent recital at the David Geffen Hall, part of both Kavakos’ appearances as Artist-in-Residence for the New York Philharmonic 2016-2017 season and the prestigious “Great Performers at Lincoln Center” series, filled the entire hall. It was a challenging program and not only for the interpreters. There was no ear-pleasing “Kreutzer Sonata” included. No Kreisler bonbons. Besides Schubert’s rather stern Fantasia in C major, D.934, the program consisted of three sonatas composed during or immediately after the First World War.

Leoš Janáček started to work on his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1914 and continued to refine the score up to 1921. It is still a somehow contrived composition, lacking the buoyancy, humor and nostalgia characterizing his late work. The two soloists tried to avoid any post-romantic exaggerations, focusing instead on the music’s inwardness and immediacy, especially in the Ballada where they ably brought forward many shades of delicate coloring within a restrained palette.

Schubert composed his C major Fantasia in 1827, during the same period he worked on the four Impromptus D.935. As in his other few works for violin and piano, there is a tad too much emphasis on instrumental technique, the fabulously imaginative writing that permeates his piano output being less evident. The initial “awakening”, starting with a piano tremolo, followed a few bars later by a long, still pianissimo C, played by the violin, is superb and it was breathtakingly rendered by the two instrumentalists. Later, the variations on a theme inspired by an earlier lied, “Sei mir gegrüßt”, had a wonderful, tinged with melancholy, exuberance. As always, Kavakos kept at bay any potential slip into sentimentality.

After intermission, it was all about atmospheric, impressionistic music. The “telepathic” communication between these two immense artists is so powerful that they synchronously navigated through Debussy and Bartók’s rhapsodic scores without even glancing at each other. The way they played at unison the expressif and sans rigueur melody in Intermède, the second movement of Debussy’s enigmatic Sonata for Violin and Piano was truly exemplary. With its mercurial character, its constant shifts in tempo and mood and indecisive oscillation between G minor and G major, Debussy’s last significant composition is particularly well suited to Yuja Wang’s restlessness. The more “serious” Kavakos admirably plunged without any restrains into the musical “game”.

Except for the finale, Béla Bartók’s Sonata no. 1 for Violin and Piano is less characterized by Hungarian or Romanian folk music reminiscences than many of his other works. The score is indebted to Debussy but also to Schoenberg’s modernism. Violin and piano often explore separate paths. With her musicality and effortless technique, Yuja Wang masterly avoided too much of a percussive sound. Kavakos’ steady line soared above the piano, bringing an almost vocal quality to the violin’s output. The performance had a remarkable freshness and élan, none of the dynamic and rhythmic shifts giving any suggestion of being pre-planned.

The fact that a pair of two authentic virtuosos have such an extraordinary chemistry and share such an interest and passion for the rarefied art form of chamber music is a great gift for us all.