New Classical Tracks: Blending classical and folk with Brahms

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
January 15, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — Leonidas Kavakos - Brahms Violin Concerto - London 19121

Leonidas Kavakos is a third-generation Greek violinist. Leonidas was anxious to follow in his father's footsteps, "So I got one instrument as a present for Christmas, under the tree when I was five. Which you can imagine practically changed my life, because that became my absolute favorite toy, my totally favorite object." His grandfather was a folk fiddler. His father was a classically trained violinist. On his new recording, Leonidas Kavakos blends both of these worlds.

"The main piece of the recording is the Brahms concerto," he explains. "What is special in this case is that the concerto is recorded with the orchestra that actually premiered the piece. The first performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was in Leipzig from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Brahms himself conducting Joseph Joachim. So this is a wonderful, fantastic tradition that the orchestra has kept and has cherished all these years. And the way they play still is a very specific and very personal way and the sound, the form and the ensemble attitude they have is quite special. That is one element.

"These were live performances that were recorded. And therefore there was all this kind of excitement that one has in a concert, and this incredible energy that drives the music-making into different levels, but at the same time captured in a way that was quite wonderful in terms of sound. The hall at Gewandhaus is fantastic; the team there that was recording made it fantastic also. So it was altogether a wonderful, very special occasion that happened in also a very good timing."

Time is the best teacher according to Leonidas. That's why now was the perfect time to record this Brahms Violin Concerto, a work he's lived with for nearly 30 years. "There have been times when I've played it more than 30 or 40 times in one year," he says. "I felt that it was a good time for me to record this piece, having accumulated enough experience with it and thinking that I am quite sure with the structure, and that I am able to project all the wonderful and beautiful context through my playing and my collaboration with a great orchestra and conductor like Gewandhaus and Chailly."

As you listen to the final movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, Leonidas says you'll hear how Riccardo Chailly captures the essence of the Hungarian folk dance. "What we tried to achieve in the last movement was definitely a very strong dancing spirit and a very strong rhythmical approach," Kavakos explains. "And the way the piece is written, it's very symphonic. I was quite pleased with the energy we achieved in that movement."

Hungarian folk songs became the thread that ties this recording together. In addition to including a few Hungarian dances by Brahms, Leonidas includes two rhapsodies by Bela Bartók. Each rhapsody is built around different folk melodies that have been transcribed and transformed into classical music. "But they have a folk element, and the way that Bartok finds through these two worlds — I find that it is absolutely unique. A little more close to our time, but which also carries an incredible message because the main message of folk music is the focus to human lives, human habits, human attitudes, human stories, human emotions.

"And they are usually, in folk music, expressed in a very primitive way. But it's also very sophisticated: it's simple but not simplistic. And when a great genius like Brahms or like Bartók takes these tunes and they transform them into either big symphonic pieces, or even great chamber music works like we have with the two rhapsodies, then we really see how important this message, the focus on the human, actually is today. We need to not forget this kind of approach to life."

On his new recording featuring the works of Brahms and Bartók, Leonidas Kavakos shows you how playing the violin and sharing classical music can be a life-changing experience.

Leonidas Kavakos & Riccardo Chailly: Brahms Violin Concerto


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