A quiet, hushed splendour – Kavakos plays Sibelius (SSO 8 Sep 2011)

Concert Ticket (Kavakos Plays Sibelius 8 Sep 2011)While it is exciting to know that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) will soon embark on its first complete cycle of Sibelius’ seven symphonies, I was even more excited about the prelude to this cycle – Leonidas Kavakos coming here to play the Violin Concerto. It’s been more than a decade since I wrote about his debut recording of no less than the world-premiere of the original 1903/1904 version of the concerto on BIS. In that CD release, he also performed a magnificent rendition of the final version.

The “Abergavenny” Stradivarius (1724) that Kavakos played on sings wonderfully hushed pianissimi, as we heard right at the beginning of the opening movement. It was a rapt moment that captured the music’s stillness perfectly. This wondrous tranquility would be brought to full fruition in the Adagio, but to be honest, the rest of the first movement felt restrained, never quite reaching the level of conviction that Kavakos played with in the aforementioned recording for BIS. I was later told that he was not feeling well, that he had to even rehearse sitting down. Perhaps that was the reason.

The good news is that that was far from the best part of the whole concert. The Adagio was simply: very moving. The heartfelt quietude, the hushed splendour of the music in the hands of Kavakos and SSO, was truly an emotional experience that can only be experienced “live”. I had tears in my eyes. It was perhaps because I was seated so close to the stage, second row – I could see each and every delicate movement from Kavakos and his instrument as they sang sunset melancholia. The couple next to me comprised a lady who sat enraptured throughout the whole concerto, but her male friend obviously belonged to the “I came along because she needed my company” category. So what was surprising was that during the Adagio, he felt compelled to hold her hand after a few minutes into the movement, and they stayed like this for the rest of the 10-minute movement.

Leonidas Kavakos receives applause. At the Esplanade Concert Hall.

For me, someone who has listened to this work for so many years, “live” and on numerous records, I guess I really need a “live” performance of this moving intensity to remind myself again why this piece is so beautiful, why I love this composer so. Kavakos held the audience in total silence for some ten seconds after the final note of the Adagio whispered away. Nobody dared to make a sound.

The driving momentum, the confident precision of the finale’s opening theme exactly reminded me of Kavakos’ 1991 recording. The galloping rhythm is exactly right, the drive powerful but not overly so, nicely sculpted. Kavakos clearly believed in this music, holding an impassioned but measured voice throughout. At the first big orchestral tutti, I watched with delight as he turned towards the orchestra and bowed along with the massed violins that distinctively stern “marcatissimo” theme. Personally, I’d always felt that for music this stirring, if I were the soloist, I wouldn’t be able to resist playing along – so I loved it that Kavakos did.

Praise also to the SSO woodwinds and brass, especially during the  Adagio. They sounded beautiful – and bode well for their upcoming journey, especially for the Third and Fifth Symphonies.

Much to my great disappointment (but I kept it well hidden, I must admit), Kavakos did not come out to grant autographs. Apparently he was due to rush off straight to the airport after this concert. Still, he found time to give two much-appreciated encores. The Sarabanda from Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004, and the Andante from Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003.  The ancient voice of the 274-year-old “Abergavenny” violin did these more than ample justice. Till now, I’m still wondering if it would’ve been more worth it to trade those for an autograph session. I don’t think the rapturous audience would agree with me.

A fitting paragraph on Jean Sibelius, from the SSO programme booklet.