BOW, HAND, BATON
The Budapest Festival Orchestra and the world-famous violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos gave a brilliant concert
I saw and heard Kavakos as a conductor for the first time. I was very interested to see how this excellent musician uses the baton. During the Mozart and Haydn pieces played in the first part of the concert on 17 December, the baton did not appear. Kavakos is the type of musician whose performances are rather difficult to characterise. There is little spectacle and mannerism, and events are usually impossible to describe concisely, but there is a good deal of pure, honest and pleasing musicality. (Well, yes. But what is it?)
It was more than twenty years ago that I heard Kavakos playing the violin – many times, actually. His permanent pianist partner was Péter Nagy, and they used to perform together all over the world. Consequently, Kavakos travelled to Hungary a number of times due to rehearsals and concerts. As far as I know, he often visited Ferenc Rados to take lessons, who was revisited by globe-trotting musicians – as comets return to their sun – asking for advice even after they became famous.
The Greek violinist impressed the world with his remarkable talent quite early. He won the Sibelius competition at the age of 18, later the Paganini violin competition. This was enough for international success, and made him a favoured musician of famous orchestras and concert agencies. But even a world-class victory is no guarantee that the given person will make a great career. It is far from certain that everyone can make it, yet Kavakos has been one of the most sought-after violinists in the world ever since. However, he was not fully satisfied with a soloist career, and started to conduct music when he was about thirty years old – not because he could not play the violin so well, neither did he aspire to be a dictator; instead, there was something he could not express in music in any way but this.
And his concerts with the Festival Orchestra (I attended the one on 17 December in the Palace of Arts) just prove the above. On the one hand, he is (still) a very capable violinist, on the other hand, he is everything but a dictator in conducting.
In his solo part in Mozart’s Violin Concerto (in G major, K. 216) – played exceptionally beautifully – I found the same most important thing as in the performance of Haydn’s Symphony (No. 84, “The Bear”). And this thing is rather difficult to put into words: musical forms, changes in harmonies, characters to be expressed, and even the discovery, comprehension and interpretation of apparently intentional jokes included in Haydn’s music are the essence of Kavakos’s way of playing music. But the same holds true for all good conductors, or at least it should be so, which means I have not revealed much about Kavakos’s character.
What tells a little bit more about him is that the way he uses his skill behind all this – which is not exclusively his own, but nevertheless the heart of his way of playing music – is a unique, or rather, seldom-heard phenomenon. And his skill lies in his ability to manage his time wisely. (Really good musicians should be “equipped” with this anyway.) László Dobszay used to say that good musicians “have time for everything”. In terms of music, of course. A good musician can do everything within a given rhythm. Even if, for example, he wants to play notes with complex ornaments, he does not miss a beat or the next key note. Rather, time becomes expansive and passes slowly, waiting for the good musician to finish ornamenting, running or anything else that needs a lot of time, before playing the target note. The way Kavakos nods (because he holds the bow in his hand) to indicate a pause before a Mozart cadenza or the orchestra’s recapitulation, or even the way he cues the musicians in with his hand in the final movement of Haydn’s Bear Symphony bears evidence of this. His extraordinary ability to manage time wisely is beyond doubt demonstrated by the ornamentation improvised in the recapitulation of Bach’s gavotte played as an encore.
Classical music, e.g. up until Beethoven’s time, enables artists who previously only played on their instrument to conduct a piece of music, but the more demanding romantic pieces require specially trained conductors. There are, however, exceptions, and sooner or later even conductors trained in Mozart will venture into the open ocean of romanticism. Yet many become shipwrecked. There is an anecdote about Furtwängler: once another conductor conducted his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and a recording was made. One moment the technician was shocked to see that the displays of the configured microphones turned red, all at once the volume was doubled and the recording was distorted. He thought of a serious mistake, short circuit or something similar, ran from the control room to the concert hall and was astonished to see that only Furtwängler was around and had stopped at a distant entrance to see how the recording was going.
It might be unfair that this story came to my mind during the performance of Pictures at an Exhibition conducted by Kavakos (with a baton), and the volume is not the point. But I heard the Festival Orchestra playing at the Palace of Arts often enough to feel that something was missing from the performance. I am used to much more intense sound. More compact. Which was true for the percussionists and the brasses, but the woodwinds, and to a certain degree the strings too, remained in the background. Kavakos did not really make any gesture to raise the volume, he seemed content. But of course, this might have been due to the possibly different settings of the “tunable” hall, or I was simply wrong. It is not so certain that Pictures at an Exhibition only consists of massive blocks of sound almost piercing the eardrum, just because most orchestras perform it like this. Apparently, the aim is not to reach the highest possible volume, still the way Kavakos conducted the piece, especially some of the first pictures, made the performance quite weak. Towards the end, the dignity of the Great Gate of Kiev or the glorious splendour of the bells could be thoroughly enjoyed, so I did not feel that anything was missing. By the way, power worship does no good in music either. Nevertheless, this way of conducting revealed many things I did not really recognise earlier in this piece. It is basically similar to a Mozart or Haydn piece: transparent structure, internal connections between the sections and new musical forms. The audience greeted the performance with plenty of spontaneous bravos, which is quite unusual, but comforting.
playliszt.postr.hu, János Mácsai