Entering a standing-room-only hall on Tuesday evening in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein, Leonidas Kavakos calmly made his way to center stage, hugged the concert master, smiled at the orchestra and then cued the beginning of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major, which he both played and conducted. Actually, conducted is perhaps not the most accurate word, as Kavakos did what any conductor with an orchestra that was weaned on Mozart like mother’s milk should do: he kept out of their way and let them do what they do brilliantly. With relaxed, expressive hands he painted lines in space indicating mood, shaping and intention, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra followed his lead with perfection.

Wiener Symphoniker © Lukas Beck
Wiener Symphoniker
© Lukas Beck

Kavakos’ violin sound is slender and flexible, and his passage work in the Mozart was trippingly executed. If the first movement was a bit on the nervous side without the corners of each tone filled out and certain details played over, he made up for it in the second movement which was gorgeous and poised. By lingering just the slightest moment at critical points, the adagio felt suspended in time and by its completion stillness reigned in a hall that normally is perpetually trying to clear the phlegm from its collective lungs. The third movement, a tricky rondo, fairly gleamed as Kavakos masterfully negotiated runs with clarity and life to bring the work to a close.

The second work on the program, Haydn’s Symphony in G minor (nicknamed “La Poule”) should be required listening for anyone who dares to assert that classical music is humorless. The first movement is a hilarious juxtaposition of Sturm und Drang drama which is periodically interrupted by a repetitious dotted motive on a single tone played by (you guessed it), the oboe. This “hen” theme and the drama preceding it repeat throughout the movement, the dotted-rhythm-on-one-note solo passing from the oboe to the flutes and then finally appearing in the background in the violins to close. The second movement begins on repeated tones as well, though this time there is nothing humorous in the air. After a lyrical beginning the repetitious eighth notes are disrupted by a crashing, downwards scale over two octaves. For any listeners who hadn’t gotten the message that this symphony was based on tone repetition, repeating thirds (D and F) permeate which slowly fade to nothing before the primary theme returns. The third movement, a minuet and trio, was rustic, robust and beautifully rendered by the Vienna Symphony, a highlight being a beautiful duet between flute and violin. The finale is surprisingly in compound time; not a norm for classical symphony finales, and also featured lovely solo work in the winds. Energy seemed to flag slightly in the long, repetitive passages in the middle, and one could argue that Haydn’s joking use of tone repetition might have grown a bit stale by the end, but on the whole the symphony was brilliantly played, masterfully structured and thoroughly delightful.

The high point of the evening was, however, Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, undoubtedly one of his finest musical offerings. The symphony is “great” in terms of its duration, which on Tuesday pushed 55 minutes, but also in terms of its drama and majesty. John Williams, eat your heart out; Peter Jackson should be using this work to score his next epic fantasy film. Kavakos got his baton out and conducted without score and with a new stature of majesty and command, guiding the orchestra through countless themes and melodies, one more beautiful than the next. From the warm horn intro of the first movement though the haunting secondary theme with its dotted rhythms and echoing horn calls; to the highlight of the first movement, a stunning trombone melody with strings soaring above; there was magic to spare. The second movement was no less impressive, and both oboe and clarinet soloists should be commended for their beautiful work. This movement; characterized by an elfin, march-like theme featuring dotted rhythms and ending with ton repetition; slowly builds in drama. Finally, a tutti progression of diminished seventh chords crescendos to a screaming fortissimo, followed by shocked, lengthy silence. This musical catastrophe is then soothed by obligato work in the strings and winds. The third movement, a scherzo, became slightly labored at times, though it never lacked clarity or motion. It is easy to get lost in all of Schubert’s intricate passage work and bogged down by the heavier scoring of the secondary theme, and Tuesday night the dancers whirling through the compound rhythms of this scherzo were wonderfully regal and stately, but also seemed to tire slightly at times. The finale, a flurry of bows, featured brilliantly unison string passage work and beautiful horn fanfares concluded the evening gloriously, and to lengthy and well-deserved applause.

****1