Other than the gigantic Salle des Combins, a semi-permanent white tent seating a couple of thousand, the major venue for the Verbier Festival is the local église, perched higher up the mountains than the main square. Marked by a tall bell-tower shaped like a cross, the hall is prowlike, dark, and claustrophobic, enlivened only by coloured slits of light coming from behind the audience. Here each day small chamber concerts take place in the early morning and later evening.

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Verbier © Nicolas Brodard
Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Verbier
© Nicolas Brodard

This one, on a baking hot morning on the Swiss National Day, gave early notice of a programme to be performed throughout Europe next season. One doesn’t easily imagine Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang playing together (I was especially intrigued as I have reviewed both here on Bachtrack in the last year). Wang’s incisive solo playing relies especially on rhythmic zest. Kavakos’ relies on minute tonal control, a refinement that usually sounds quite modernistic. Yet here they were, playing all three Brahms violin sonatas back to back. All of the interpretations will grow over time as this partnership develops, and surely they will become less stilted. Indeed, during this recital the bond visibly and audibly tightened, as phrases began to give and take, tempo changes became less jerky, and both artists gained confidence.

The first sonata, notionally in G major, was a relaxed affair, its troubles kept mostly under the surface. Wang, not yet a noted Brahmsian, opened with tenderness and a warmth of true Brahmsian depth, her dreamy sense of phrasing and line to the fore, and matched by Kavakos. From then on, however, structural rigour gave way to a wandering, hesitant quality, even if a sense of restraint predominated, as it must in mid to late Brahms. Kavakos asserted himself more in the slow movement, which, despite magical moments as his double-stopping stole in under the radar, remained tepid. Hesitation again characterised an anaemic finale, in which restraint veered too much in the wrong direction.

If that was the weakest of the three performances, the second was a marked improvement. Its airier sensibilities – inspired by Brahms’ summer stay in Thun, a Swiss town not all that from from Verbier – suited Wang more, as she floated carefree chords into being and seemed altogether more vivacious, even as she hinted at her potential in Brahms’ late solo works. Possessing much better shape, yet still sounding a touch sight-read, the sonata also engendered more comfortably lyrical playing from Kavakos. There was a lovely poise to the slow movement, songful in the violin and rippling away in the piano. A sense of disconnect between players sadly crept into the finale once more, although Kavakos’ long arches of phrases promised a great deal.

The third and greatest sonata was an entirely different affair, exuding confidence and giving much more for both players to get their musical teeth into. With the music suiting the players more, the performance gave a better account of Brahms, too. The first movement, sotto voce but energetic, saw Brahms’ deep-seated anxieties coming through without challenging the more dominant colours, and threatening emotions this time around accompanied a sure-footed sense of structure. The following cavatina sang sweetly but far from too much so, at the midpoint between love-song, rhapsody, and lament. Here Kavakos finally let go with his tone, allowing much freer use of vibrato than usual, with great benefits. One feared that the scherzando third movement might suffer from recurring timidity, but not so, its central section exploding into life. And there was a great vehemence now too, an intensity to the finale that was worlds away from the stilted first sonata. More details emerged from the piano as Wang found rhythmic intrigue, while Kavakos’ playing grew ever darker, shredding his tone and fraying it down so that there was almost no singing quality on individual notes at all. This last sonata showed what might be possible from these forces.