Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos
Yuga Wang and Leonidas Kavakos | Credit: DECCA/Ben Ealovega

In 2014, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang released a dynamic recording of Brahms’s violin sonatas. The album features passionate, pristine playing — performances that seem to have benefited from generous sound editing. On the recording, the tone and energy of violinist and pianist are balanced. In person, not so much.

On Thursday night, Kavakos and Wang brought their currently touring program of Bach, Busoni, and Shostakovich violin sonatas to the LA Phil’s Colburn Celebrity Recital series at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. (The duo performed the same program in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Nov. 13.)

They gave a somber, lackluster performance. Kavakos’s anemic tone and tendency to wallow in the quicksand of dragging slow movements was primarily responsible for sucking the energy out of the hall.

Great violinists treat the open central expanse of Disney Hall as an acoustic playground, filling it with rich swirling tones and piercing it with finely tuned darts. In recital by herself and in concert with the LA Phil, Wang does the same from the piano, masterfully controlling sound in space.

On Thursday night, Kavakos just played for himself, producing a thin, limp sound that didn’t bother to project. Wang was left to adjust and accommodate, a thoroughbred held to a conservative trot.

On paper, the program Kavakos and Wang are touring right now has potential, an opportunity to view the riches of Bach’s contrapuntal language from a fresh perspective. But this pair offered up little more than bland beauty, despite Wang’s valiant efforts to interject energy and artistry where she could.

In Bach’s first and third violin sonatas (in B Minor, BWV 1014, and E Major, BWV 1016, respectively), Kavakos and Wang crafted finely shaped phrases and seamlessly volleyed melodic lines back and forth. But their interpretation lacked an artistic perspective. This was not a neatly crafted historical performance, nor was it an unabashedly romantic rendition or a punchy, more modern take on the repertoire. This Bach tasted like an expensive dinner at a hip chef’s trendy restaurant that leaves you underwhelmed, wondering what all the fuss is about, and stopping for street tacos on the way home.

Five days before Kavakos and Wang’s recital, the LA Phil performed John Adams’s Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz. Josefowicz shredded that concerto, devoured it, and became possessed by it. When Wang premiered Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes in March of 2019, she did the same, completely unleashed — one of the world’s great pianists at the top of her game.

Let’s hope the next time Wang shows up at Disney Hall for a violin/piano duo recital she ditches Kavakos and teams up with Josefowicz or someone like her. Hearing them play Bach, paired with say, John Adams’s Road Movies for violin and piano, would be worth the price of admission.  

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