Leonidas Kavakos: Approaching music from the past


March 2014


When Decca approached him, it was clear to Leonidas Kavakos that he wanted to record the whole cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonata. The project had emerged a few years earlier from his association with the Italian pianist Enrico Pace. They had played the Beethoven Sonatas scattered here and there but at some point wanted to perform and record them all.


It goes without saying that being able to prepare and present the whole cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonatas is a great challenge. The 10 Sonatas are presented in three recitals. The programming of these recitals is not based on musical principals but on the Sonatas that Kavakos and Pace believe were the cycle’s pillars: the Op. 30 no. 2, the Op. 96 and the Kreutzer. These Sonatas are extremely different from each other but, according to Kavakos, are the ones that show Beethoven at his most advanced stage. Beethoven’s music was unprecedented. At the time, the Violin Sonatas presented a totally different dimension in the way the listener was challenged.


There are many reasons why Kavakos chose to record Beethoven and his Violin Sonatas in particular. The 10 Sonatas are monuments of the violin repertoire and though written within a short period of time, they represent a huge progress for the genre. In fact, the form of the sonatas changes tremendously from Op. 12 to Op. 96. For Kavakos, whether he writes a symphony, a quartet or a sonata, Beethoven is synonym of revolution, agony, battle and effort. To play his music, one needs an amazing amount of devotion despite how talented one is. “In opposition to Mozart, Beethoven had this kind of karma that all the miracles he achieved would have to be achieved through enormous amount of effort and work”, says the violinist. In fact while Mozart’s manuscripts are clean, Beethoven’s look like a warzone. In Beethoven’s case all the ideas, all the possibilities are written down in the score. He is aware of all of them and struggles with the choice, the decision, fights for the way to go. “I found that this is a very contemporary message for all of us today who are used to have a very convenient, nice and easy life”, Kavakos concludes wisely.


With the Sonatas one can really experience the drama, the struggle and the complexity of Beethoven. “Beethoven Violin Concerto is a very lyrical piece”, agrees the musician, “one of the most lyrical pieces. It’s great but one is practically in heaven from the very beginning of it.” Of course there are a couple of extremely lyrical moments but most of the time, Beethoven pushes the limits, taking the expression and music a step further. Able to create an enormous amount of emotion without being sentimental, he is really breaking the frontier to romanticism. Extremely powerful and dramatic, Beethoven’s music never lets you fulfilled the emotion and the build-up. It’s well known that when you are about to step to the forte after a big crescendo, Beethoven forces you to withdraw with a subito piano. “That is a huge psychological challenge for both the listener and the player”, says Kavakos.


Kavakos thinks the biggest challenge with Beethoven – or any music – is to perform it coming from the past, not looking at it from the present. He explains: “for me it would be wrong to look at Beethoven from our or even from Brahms’ point, because even if it can make fantastic interpretation it denies the momentum of Beethoven’s time. ” In fact it denies the composer’s effort to break boundaries, which is an extremely decisive emotional factor in music. “One has to remember that these Sonatas come from a man who doesn’t know romanticism yet but who is approaching it, who is looking for it. I think it’s very important for us to experience the time of Beethoven or any composer, to approach them from the past, from their past as they are actually making the big step”, says the violinist. This awareness affects Kavakos’ playing in many ways. For instance, he will consciously not favor the use of a contemporary violin sound, the use of the most rich or vibrated sound.


Kavakos has this idea that Beethoven’s manuscripts, like those of Bach or Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Bartok, are better than those of any music player that has ever been born. Great music constantly makes one discover new things. “It’s important to grow with the repertoire. When one is doing something like playing all the Beethoven Sonatas, one is changing also as a person. The style of Beethoven evolved big time for me since my twenties. Still today while we are rehearsing, Enrico and I, we get new ideas. As I said the music is much better than us, there are always things there for us to find out.” Therefore it’s impossible for anyone to get tired of it. Of course, it’s not the music that gets better but our understanding of it that evolves. Everything exists in the score from the beginning. “These Sonatas are all so different from each other, even within the same opus number they are all autonomous from each other; they are their own world. We are talking here about ten different worlds”.


Before playing at Carnegie Hall, Kavakos and Pace had performed the Beethoven Violin Sonatas extensively throughout the world. Their last engagement will be at the Beethoven Fest in Bonn next September. Although the Beethoven Fest might be the last performance of the Sonatas booked as a cycle, the musicians have assured me that they will never stop playing and discovering this fantastic music over and over again.