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“Unwavering commitment, superb clarity, and an exhilarating impetuous streak”
The Guardian, reviewing Leonidas Kavakos’ performance of Ravel’s “Tzigane” at the London BBC Proms

Leonidas Kavakos, the outstanding Greek violinist, makes his ECM debut on this disc, as does the comparably gifted Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy, in a programme that explores the musical-historical relationship between Ravel and Enescu.

Increasingly regarded as one of the most insightful musicians of his generation, Kavakos first attracted attention via his spectacular successes in international music competitions, taking first prizes in both the Sibelius and Paganini competitions. From the outset, however, it was clear that he had more than virtuosity at his disposal, and the depth of his musicality was already evident.

Born in Athens into a musical family with strong traditions in folk music, Kavakos began studying violin with his father, continuing his studies at the Greek Conservatory with Stelios Kafantaris. An Onassis Foundation scholarship enabled him to attend master classes with Joseph Gingold at Indiana University, and he made his concert debut at the Athens Festival in 1984. Major debuts at the London BBC Proms and international festivals in Edinburgh, Salzburg, Ravinia and the Hollywood Bowl, were followed by invitations to play with orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Gothenburg Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In May 2003, Kavakos made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

An active chamber musician, Kavakos has been the Artistic Director of his own chamber music cycle in the Megaron, Athens since 1992. He regularly appears at chamber music festivals with partners including Natalie Gutman, Nobuko Imai, Kim Kashkashian and Mstislav Rostropovich. The Camerata Salzburg recently appointed Kavakos their Principal Guest Artist (a post they created especially for him) and he has toured extensively with this ensemble, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Several further recordings for ECM have already been made. Scheduled for release early in 2004 is an album of music by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian in which Kavakos is the soloist in the Violin Concerto (also on this disc are Kim Kashkashian, Jan Garbarek, the Hilliard Ensemble, and the Munich Chamber Orchestra under Christoph Poppen). A Kavakos CD with music of Bach and Stravinsky is also in preparation.

A child prodigy, Péter Nagy was admitted at the age of 8 to the Special School for Young Talents of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, Budapest. His teachers were Ferenc Rados and Klára Máthé. In 1975 he became a regular student of the Liszt Academy, and in 1979 he won the first prize in the Hungarian Radio Piano Competition. He graduated with distinction from the class of Prof. Kornél Zempléni in 1981.

Nagy has appeared as a soloist with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. As a chamber musician he has performed at major festivals, including Aix-en-Provence, Athens, Davos, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Helsinki, and the Marlboro Music Festival.

The duo of Kavakos and Nagy has toured in the USA, Spain, Greece, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and Hungary. In addition to the works on the present recording, they have also recorded Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Suite Italienne for future release on ECM New Series. Nagy has also accompanied violist Kim Kashkashian in recitals in Europe and North America.

In 2001, Péter Nagy received the prestigious Liszt Award.

***

The half-Swiss, half-Basque, French-educated Ravel (1875-1937) and the Rumanian Enescu (1881-1955) were classmates at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1890s, studying composition with Fauré, and often partnered each other in practise and performance.

On this ECM disc, Ravel’s “Sonate Posthume” and “Tzigane”, with its gypsy flourishes, frame Enescu’s “Impressions d’enfance” (Impressions of Childhood) and Third Sonata.
In his own lifetime, Enescu’s compositional genius was overshadowed by his violin artistry and his gifts as a teacher (whose pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, and Ida Haendel). Additionally, his output was relatively small – Fauré had taught him that only the very best was good enough - and technically challenging for the interpreter. The “Impressions d’enfance” and the Third Sonata both have an almost novelistic span and extraordinary range and depth of feeling – brilliantly conveyed by the resourceful Kavakos.

In some of his work Enescu stands between folk music and 20th century modernism – the complex relationship between his musical thought and the traditional music of his homeland is akin to Bartók’s - and his Third Sonata is the most folk-flavoured of all. Bringing the whole range of Rumanian traditional folk ornamentation and techniques including quarter-tone playing and wide vibrato to bear on modern music, Enescu arrived at a new language of violin writing that has retained the freshness of improvisation. Of Enescu’s Third Sonata, Yehudi Menuhin once said, “I know of no other work more painstakingly edited or planned.” It conveys the character of Rumanian folk music in an entirely personal way.

Ravel’s one movement sonata of 1897 is believed to have been performed by the composer and Enescu at the Paris Conservatoire, and it seems likely that it was inspired by Enescu’s playing. The sonata was rediscovered only long after Ravel’s death and first publicly performed and published in 1975.

The work can fairly be described as “ahead of its time”. As Roger Nichols, author of “Ravel Remembered” and other studies of the composer observes in his liner notes, “the chromatic passages are driven by a bass line descending by semitones and harmonised with the consecutive fifths that were still forbidden by the textbooks of the time, certainly in such quantities. This ‘disruptive’ aspect of Ravel is an important part of his character and music, and it is precisely here that Enescu’s exotic input finds a place: in this work it occurs during the dramatic development section, in the sudden little bursts of rapid semiquavers and in the impassioned high-lying violin line, marked ‘bien chanté’ – Kavakos duly marks this section with gipsy-like portamenti. But in the piano part this climax is delivered through complex textures that owe more to Ravel’s new-found enthusiasm for Debussy songs such as the ‘Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire’ and especially the ‘Proses lyriques’. ‘Nature’ and ‘Art’ are thus brought together.”

Ravel’s well-known “Tzigane” (1924), a veritable compendium of gypsy devices – “harmonics, trills, appoggiaturas, double-stopping, octaves, intervals of the augmented second, accelerations, hesitations, and passages in high positions on the lower strings” - was written not for Enescu but for the young Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, (Bartók and Vaughan Williams, captivated by Ms. d’Aranyi’s virtuosic skills and flamboyant personality, also wrote music for her). Ravel’s fears about the work’s technical demands – “Some passages could make a brilliant effect provided they’re playable … something I’m not sure about in every case”, were swiftly allayed by d’Aranyi, and the piece has remained an inspiring challenge for violinists down the decades. The harmonies, as Nichols notes, “are remarkably complex and dissonant, but the whole is swept along by a fierce rhythmic drive, and controlled, as always with Ravel, by a masterly hand that leaves us at the end of each section poised in expectation.”

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