Leonidas Kavakos is a true third-generation violinist. His grandfather played violin and lute and led his own folk band in Greece. His father began playing in the band but was then sent to conservatory to learn classical violin. “In
folk music, you play the fiddle in front of your chest — it’s a whole different approach,”
explains Kavakos, a native Athenian. “My grandfather saw the technique my father
was learning at the conservatory in Athens and thought, ‘My God, my son will see me
play and the conservatory will teach him other things —he will become confused!’ so
he stopped playing altogether. This was very moving for me.” Kavakos’s most recent
recording is of the (three) Brahms violin sonatas with pianist Yuja Wang (Decca), but
when the violinist spoke to Listen at New York City’s Steinway Hall he had Beethoven
on the brain, having just performed a complete survey of Beethoven’s (ten) violin
sonatas with pianist Enrico Pace (also available on Decca) in three concerts across the
street at Carnegie Hall.
An Existential Joy
Thoughts from violinist Leonidas Kavakos
on Beethoven and folk music
By Ben Finane
with Beethoven, he’s fighting to achieve that
(and he does). Beethoven has the ability, he
has a fresh approach, and he can also see one
idea in many ways. Imagine one color that
can look different, without really changing,
depending on how you conceive it: a blue
with one million blues inside.
And such an important part of Beethoven’s
legacy, obviously, is this development of ideas.
Whatever he touched… went well! The title
of these works is ‘Sonata for Piano and Violin.’
Can you say this is the case for the ‘Kreutzer’
Sonata? The ‘Spring’ Sonata? Here, for the first
time, he gives the theme to the violin. That’s a
huge step for that day and time.
Do you bring your folk sensibility to all of
classical music or does it depend on the work?
The role of folk music has always been
fundamental in classical music. The role of
dance can have fantastic meaning. Consider
that in Greece, the folk dance is in a circle and
Playing all the Beethoven violin sonatas
together, what discoveries did you make?
It’s an incredible journey each and every
time — an X-ray of Beethoven’s DNA. You have
ten pieces, written over not such a long period.
However, they are as different— and the evolu-
tion is as dramatic — as one can imagine. All
the talent is revealed, in terms of Beethoven’s
unlimited potential in improvisation.
And then you have the coexistence of
some of the most lyrical moments — where
Beethoven writes in a Schubertian manner,
very melodically — juxtaposed with what you
might call the identity card of Beethoven: this
great drama, wherein contradictory emotions
are painfully fighting against each other. For
instance, if you look at Op. 24 and 25, the
‘Spring’ Sonata and the No. 4, you have two
different worlds. Op. 24 is restless, breathless,
agonizing; there’s a kind of agitation in the
music that does not exist in the tranquil
And then there is the enormous and
Improvisation is something many listeners
incomparable mind of Beethoven, which
interferes with the concept of the form. Three-
movement sonatas become four-movement
sonatas and then he suddenly arrives at the
‘Kreutzer,’ which is a sonata and yet nothing
like a sonata. And you have the Op. 96, which
looks forward to his late quartets and late
symphonies, music that is classical yet still
sounds contemporary today.
wouldn’t think of vis-à-vis Beethoven.
We can see Beethoven’s talent for improvisation in the movements where he writes the
variations. The contradiction in Beethoven
is that everyone knew he was a fantastic
improviser at the piano, yet his manuscripts
look like warzones! Because everything he has
is battling each other. Whereas Mozart was a
great improviser —
— with pristine scores.
It’s like there was no other thing to write, and
Mozart just wrote the greatest music. But