Leonidas Kavakos is recognised across the world as a violinist and artist of rare quality, acclaimed for his matchless technique, his captivating artistry and his superb musicianship as well as for the integrity of his playing. He works with the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors and plays as recitalist in the world’s premier recital halls and festivals. He is an exclusive recording artist with Sony Classical.
The three important mentors in his life have been Stelios Kafantaris, Josef Gingold, and Ferenc Rados, with whom he still works. By the age of 21, Leonidas Kavakos had already won three major competitions: the Sibelius Competition in 1985, and the Paganini and Naumburg competitions in 1988. This success led to him recording the original Sibelius Violin Concerto (1903/4), the first recording of this work in history, which won Gramophone Concerto of the Year Award in 1991.
Kavakos is now an exclusive recording artist with Sony Classics. His latest recording, to be released worldwide in October 2019 in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, is the Beethoven Violin Concerto which he conducted and played with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, coupled with the Beethoven Septet played with members of the orchestra. In the anniversary year, Kavakos will both play and play/conduct the Beethoven concerto with orchestras across Europe and the USA. He will also play the complete cycle of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas in Shanghai and Guangzhou, Milan and Rome, and a number of single Beethoven recitals in various cities including London’s Wigmore Hall, Barcelona, Parma and Copenhagen.
In 2007, for his recording of the complete Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas with Enrico Pace, Kavakos was named Echo Klassik Instrumentalist of the year. In 2014, Kavakos was awarded Gramophone Artist of the Year.
Further accolades came in 2017 when Kavakos was awarded the prestigious Leonie Sonning Prize – Denmark’s highest musical honour, given annually to an internationally recognised composer, conductor, instrumentalist or singer. Previous winners include Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Alfred Brendel, Benjamin Britten, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Simon Rattle, Mstislav Rostropovich, Arthur Rubinstein and Dmitri Shostakovich.
August 2019 was a full and rewarding month: after the Verbier Festival where he appeared in recital with Evgeny Kissin and conducted the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra in a programme in which he played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Antoine Tamestit, he joined YoYo Ma and Emanuel Ax at the Tanglewood Music Festival for a programme of Beethovenʼs Piano Trios, in a duo recital with Ax of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, and in an orchestral concert with the Boston Symphony in which he played and conducted Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.
Kavakos was also invited as “Artiste Etoile” at the Lucerne Festival where he appeared with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic with Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and in recital with Yuja Wang.
In the 2019/20 season, in addition to concerts with major orchestras in Europe and the United States, Leonidas Kavakos will once again join YoYo Ma and Emanuel Ax for three programmes in Carnegie Hall comprising Beethoven’s trios and sonatas. He will undertake two Asian tours, first as soloist with the Singapore Symphony and Seoul Philharmonic and in recital in the NCPA Beijing, and then in the spring he will perform with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra, prior to playing the cycle of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas in Shanghai and Guangzhou with Enrico Pace.
In recent year, Leonidas Kavakos has succeeded in building a strong profile as a conductor and has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Gürzenich Orchester, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Vienna Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Filarmonica Teatro La Fenice, and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. In the forthcoming season he will return to two orchestras where he has developed close ties as both violinist and condcutor: L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. This season he also play/conducts the Czech Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI.
Born and brought up in a musical family in Athens, Kavakos curates an annual violin and chamber-music masterclass in Athens, which attracts violinists and ensembles from all over the world and reflects his deep commitment to the handing on of musical knowledge and traditions. Part of this tradition is the art of violin and bow-making, which Kavakos regards as a great mystery and to this day, an undisclosed secret. He plays the ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius violin of 1734 and owns modern violins made by F. Leonhard, S. P. Greiner, E. Haahti and D. Bagué.
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
The first composition that Ludwig van Beethoven intended to write for violin and orchestra dates from around 1792; this autonomous movement in C major is considered to be a fragment of an unfinished violin concerto. Around 1800 it was followed by Romance in G major, Op. 40, and Romance in F major, Op. 50. Some of Beethoven’s biographers consider these compositions to be parts of an unrealized plan for a concerto in a cyclic form, but there is no reliable evidence for this claim.
Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61 came into being within an extremely short period during November and December 1806. At the time, Beethoven was working on his Fifth Symphony, and both compositions have some elements in common. These include a series of timpani strokes at the beginning, the thematic treatment and the overall mood of both pieces. Violin Concerto was commissioned from Beethoven by Franz Clement (1780–1842), the concert master of the Orchestra of the Theater an der Wien. He premiered it there on 23 December 1806 on the occasion of his benefit concert, which also featured opera overtures by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and Luigi Cherubini and Handel’s and Mozart’s vocal compositions. Clement’s name inspired Beethoven to a punning inscription “Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement” (Through Clemency for Clement). As a concert master, Clement participated in the presentation of a number of Beethoven’s works and also acted as a mediator between the often grumpy composer and impatient orchestral players (however, the first printed edition of the Violin Concerto was dedicated to Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning). Clement allegedly got the finished score at the last minute, yet performed it brilliantly. As a violinist with excellent left-hand technique who still used an old-fashioned bow, he probably did not achieve the desired volume of sound. Beethoven later edited the solo part and returned to this piece once more in 1808, when he arranged it as a piano concerto at the request of the composer, pianist and publisher Muzio Clementi. On that occasion, he also revised the solo violin part, giving it the definitive form in which it is to be heard tonight.
The exposition of the first movement starts with the above-mentioned beat of the timpani. It is followed by five ideas that unfold from one another and are always accompanied by the rhythmic element of the timpani. The orchestra’s role goes beyond the usual accompaniment of a virtuoso concerto and leads to a symphonization which is the hallmark of violin concertos of the next generation. The first entry of the solo violin gives the impression of a cadenza, but here, too, the rhythmic pattern of the introduction, which goes through the whole development section, can be felt. In the recapitulation after the solo cadenza (which is entirely left to the soloist’s skills in improvising), the fourth of the ideas of the exposition returns as a small surprise for the listener, awaiting the usual conclusion. The second movement can also be considered a “romance”. The main idea is played by various instruments, and eventually it appears in the orchestral tutti; the second, less serious idea forms a contrasting relief. The cadenza leads into the final movement, Rondo, without a pause (attacca). The ritornello in the Rondo does not occur in a mechanical way, but is interrupted by two episodes. The composition ends with another extensive cadenza.
Franz Clement also appeared at the Theater an der Wien at the music academy where Beethoven’s Third Symphony was publicly performed for the first time. Its history has been analyzed in a great deal of literature, and the remarks of Beethoven’s biographers about this work go far beyond the music as such. The Third Symphony has been linked to Beethoven’s worldview and political beliefs, the reasons for its composition have been examined, and there is a number of hypotheses about its name and dedication. According to second-hand reports, the impulse for the symphony came from General Bernadotte, the French envoy to Vienna, whom Beethoven admired and whose salon he attended. The funeral march of the second movement, for example, was associated with the death of Admiral Nelson (however, at the time of his death at Trafalgar 1805, the symphony was already written); others linked it to Beethoven’s interest in ancient heroes and the like. The first sketches for the symphony come from 1802 when Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul of the French Republic; Beethoven’s admiration for him and everything French went so far that he even intended to relocate to Paris. He wanted to dedicate his new symphony to Napoleon, but his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, did not like the idea. He offered Beethoven a considerable amount of money for this composition, reserving the right to perform it for six months. Beethoven resolved this issue by a compromise – he dedicated the symphony to Lobkowitz, while giving it the title “Bonaparte”. In mid-May 1804, however, Napoleon declared himself Emperor, and according to the testimony of Beethoven’s secretary, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven tore the title page of the symphony in a fury. The original autograph score has not survived, but the changed name can be also seen in its copy, from which the original title was erased so forcefully that there is a hole in its place. The symphony was rehearsed in private in Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna in the late May and early June 1804 by an orchestra conducted by the concert master Anton Wranitzky. Lobkowitz took advantage of his right to the symphony, and let it be performed at his Jezeří Castle in northern Bohemia (in the presence of the Prussian Prince Louis Ferdinand, who was passing through the Czech lands on a diplomatic mission), and in January 1805 again in his palace in Vienna. The public premiere of the symphony took place on 7 April 1805 at the Theater an der Wien under Beethoven’s direction. The question remains who is referred to in the title Sinfonia Eroica, “composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo” (Heroic Symphony, “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”), under which the composition was published in the autumn of 1806. The “great man” seems to be Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed on 10 October 1806 at the Battle of Saalfeld.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major “Eroica” was soon perceived as a revolutionary work both in terms of the social and artistic revolutions. For example, as early as 1839, it was written: “Beethoven transformed the storm of the world revolution into tones; with anxiety and yet full of enthusiasm, we listen how he dares to approach the limits of harmony.” The symphony represents a milestone in the development of Beethoven’s symphonic music as well as the genre as such. Above all, it is extremely extensive. The unusual number of three French horns in the instrumentation is sometimes related to Beethoven’s early problems with hearing, but it rather suggests a tendency to expand the orchestra’s sound capabilities, as they were fully developed in Romanticism through technical improvements in the design of instruments. The main theme does not consist only of a simple swinging between the notes of an E flat major chord that quickly stumbles on a dissonant C sharp, but the opening two tutti chords determine the rhythmic basis of the whole movement and give the background for all material. The development section, bringing in a new theme, which will also appears in the coda, is gaining in importance. The second movement is the first example of using the funeral march as a separate symphony movement, and scherzo is one of the most energetic in Beethoven’s oeuvre. The final movement features masterful variations, undeniably connected with Beethoven’s music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43, i.e., Fifteen Variations and Fugue, Op. 35 also called Eroica Variations. In many ways, Beethoven’s Eroica paved the way for the great symphonies of the next generation of composers.
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
The beginning of the new century was a major turning point in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. While war was raging Europe because of the French Revolution, the composer was undergoing a deep personal crisis. Since about 1798 his hearing had been worsening gradually, and despite the efforts of physicians, this ultimately led to total deafness. This was an especially crushing blow for Beethoven, who had been earning a living mainly as a piano virtuoso since moving from his birthplace Bonn to Vienna. Consumed by his own problems, in April 1802 he moved to a quiet settlement on the outskirts of Vienna in the hope that his health would improve. Unfortunately, that did not occur. Beethoven was convinced that his worsening deafness portended the approaching end of his life. That autumn he wrote what we know as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this moving letter that he wrote to his brothers but never sent, at just 32 years of age, Beethoven confesses that his worsening health has brought him suffering, and also admits that he had contemplated suicide. Ultimately, however, the composer rejected such thoughts, reconciled himself to his fate, and with growing determination fully devoted himself to a higher calling. In the years that followed, Beethoven gave himself over entirely to composing and began a new chapter of his artistic career, which his biographers have called his “heroic period”.
This is when he wrote his great Fifth Symphony as well as the Eroica and the Pastoral, the piano sonata known as the Apassionata, the first version of the opera Fidelio, and the Violin Concerto in D major. The composer wrote his only concerto for that instrument on commission for Franz Clement, the talented violinist, composer, and conductor at the Theater an der Wien. The premiere took place on 23 December 1806, and Beethoven had supposedly only finished the score a few days beforehand. It appears that the artistic quality of the premiere suffered because of insufficient rehearsal time. Although the audience gave the new work a cordial reception, the music critics were more reserved, and apart from a handful of performances the concerto was largely forgotten for another 38 years. The man behind its rediscovery in 1844 was the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, at the time just 14 years old, who performed it with great success at his London debut. Since then, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto has won a place in the standard repertoire as one of the pillars of the violin literature alongside the concertos of Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky.
The Violin Concerto in D major makes demands of the highest order on the performer. The three-movement work in the classical concerto mould is imbued with a lyrical mood that is unusual in comparison with Beethoven’s other works. Here, the heroism we noted above, as found for example in the Eroica or the piano concertos, yields to the composer’s admiration for pastoral motifs. In this regard, the middle movement (Larghetto) is especially remarkable. Beethoven used this very slow tempo indication only twice in his orchestral works. The first time was in his Second Symphony, which he completed while staying in Heiligenstadt. The solo violin part lies mostly in the very high register, and the melodic material is built from simple scales and arpeggios, while the orchestra serves mostly as a harmonic anchor, and the music’s pulse nearly comes to a halt in places. The overall effect is one of an intimate confession, but in the final bars of the movement, the mood is interrupted by a playfully virtuosic motif announcing the following Rondo.
The protagonist of this evening’s concert, Lisa Batiashvili, first played Beethoven’s concerto at age 18, and she still regards it as an exceptional work: “It is heavenly music that carries us away to another world. Beethoven wrote a work that is incredibly virtuosic, but one must still play it as lightly as possible. Especially in the last movement, you have to show what you are capable of, but at the same time you have the feeling that it is you who must serve the music, and not the other way around.”