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One of very few Greek classical string players of international standing, Leonidas Kavakos began the violin at five, progressing to studies with Stelios Kafantaris at the Hellenic Conservatory and later winning an Onassis Foundation scholarship that took him to the US to participate in Josef Gingold’s masterclasses at Indiana University. Having made his concert début in Athens, his success at several violin competitions in the 1980s helped Kavakos on his way to an international reputation. One of his earlier recordings—an interesting comparative reading of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in its original and final versions—won a 1991 Gramophone Award. Like many other string players, Kavakos is also known as a conductor. In this rôle he has worked with orchestras in Budapest, Houston and Rotterdam, as well as with the Camerata Salzburg with whom he made a successful recording of the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto as soloist-director. With this latter ensemble, Kavakos worked as principal guest artist under the direction of Roger Norrington, who developed ideas of historically-informed performance during his tenure.

Kavakos’s playing is distinguished by a certain reserve and architectural cleanliness. It is interesting, considering his pedagogic background (including significant exposure to Gingold’s playing), that he plays with a notably tight, clean and generally ‘straight’ tone, vibrato being used sparingly and lightly. The results are distinctive and work well in the repertory chosen here. Arguably his Albéniz-Kreisler Tango (2000) is a little dry and not especially interesting, but it is listed because of Kavakos’s connection with Gingold, who recorded a great deal of ‘Kreisleriana’. The Ysaÿe Sonata No. 1 (1999) works especially well, with a clean, exquisitely-tuned first movement, and particularly interesting third which, delivered initially senza-vibrato, sounds almost Baroque in manner. Included here of course is Kavakos’s 1990 disc of both the original and much better known 1905 versions of the Sibelius Concerto. One might say that his ascetic tonal approach suits the pared-down later version better, the more old-fashioned and expansive earlier version (which includes some very beautiful themes missing from the later one) sounding maybe a little dry, although at all times Kavakos keeps things under control and plays with great technical mastery. This mastery is evident in Paganini’s Le streghe (1992), which takes a while to get going, but the left-hand pizzicato is beautifully managed. Finally, Kavakos’s sparing tone finds a particularly suitable outlet in Hindemith’s bitter-sweet Violin Concerto written at the outbreak of World War II (recorded 2001).

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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11:09:56 PM, 27 May 2016
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