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Tuesday December 16 2008

Last Friday, a friend and I attended a Wigmore Hall recital given by the world-class violinist Leonidas Kavakos, accompanied by a non-world-class pianist whose name is obviously googlable but, for reasons which will become clear if you keep reading this, I prefer not to dwell on.

There were three pieces on the menu, sonatas by Schubert, Janacek and Bartok.  Having not that long ago heard Kavakos give a fabulous performance of the Shostakovich violin sonata, also at the Wigmore, I was looking forward very much to this latest recital.  My journey to it was the sort of London travel horror story, involving stopping off at my home to dump unwieldy luggage, that people with more frequent fixed dates in their lives than I now face presumably suffer a lot more often than I do, but that didn’t make my journey any nicer for me, and when I got to the Wigmore, in time but not by much, I was in a bad mood.  But art can often take all the sting out of such ghastliness, the haven it provides being all the more heavenly because of the hell that was endured to arrive at it, so beneath my generalised state of resentment at the universe, I remained optimistic that this particular part of the universe might make my travel miseries worthwhile, and even bestow a retrospective glow on the memory of them.  Having been through hell to reach heaven, perhaps I was being all the better prepared to experience heaven.  So: make my day Leonidas.

The Schubert began, but, for me, heaven refused to arrive.  Kavakos’s playing was a wonder.  But the sound of the piano made it seem that we were all listening to a bad recording, with quite different microphones being used for the two different instruments.  Kavakos’s violin was clarity itself.  But the piano sounded like it was coming from the bottom of an empty swimming pool, and as if someone had left a tool box on top of the sustaining pedal, like Patrick McGoohan did on the fast-forward pedal of the train in Silver Streak, thereby causing the train to smash into Chicago station.

Maybe the hall itself was the problem.  The Wigmore stage has a curved back wall, and short side walls, making its shape like an arch window, pushed over by the audience into a flat position.  Kavakos was at the front of the stage, but the piano was at the hub of the semi-circle.  Maybe that was what made the two instruments sound so different.  Or maybe our seats were the problem.  For that earlier Shostakovich recital, my friend and I were up in the gallery, but for this we were down in the stalls.  I realise that saying anything negative about the sacred acoustics of the Wigmore Hall is, well, sacrilege, but I tell it as I heard it, and I heard this with severe difficulty.  When either instrument was playing alone, it sounded okay, and in the case of Kavakos’s violin a lot more than okay.  But mostly, of course, they were both playing, and the result sounded to me not like harmony but like collision.

It didn’t help that someone somewhere – it sounded like it was the man in the seat right right behind me - was wheezing like a damn walrus.

Chamber music can make far more sense when you watch it, instead of just listen to a recording, so I had hoped that the Schubert sonata would come alive for me.  On CD, all I think when listening to Schubert for violin and piano is: I wish this was one of the trios instead.  Sadly, my reaction to this live performance was the same.  Maybe the Janacek and Bartok, again pieces of the sort I find unlovely on CD, would come alive.  But: no.

The problem was not merely the piano sound, but the piano playing.  The pianist looked and behaved like a waiter, rather than a fellow diner.  There was a fatal air of deference about every note, every chord he played.  There was no sense of dialog, of eager, point-making, interpretative zeal.  The chords lacked internal coherence.  When it should have sounded as if sparks were flying, all we got was a report of what the notes merely were.  Passages that should have dazzled or twinkled or stabbed like a rapier were merely played, as if by a capable sight-reader.  Pieces like these should, to switch metaphors yet again, be like a tennis match between champions, with sudden changes of direction and power flying back and forth between two equals.  This was was a tennis star and a ball boy.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t see the pianists hands.  Given that I couldn’t hear the notes properly, it would perhaps have helped had I been able to see them.

At the end, when they bowed, the pianist stood at the back, rather than alongside Kavakos, and he bowed very slowly and deeply, bowing very slowly and deeply being the most memorable thing he did.

Once I had worked all this out, I began to wonder who else I would want playing the piano, instead of the dreary person who was?  Basically, anyone classy, of the sort you’d want to hear playing solo pieces.  CDs are seldom made with also-ran pianists merely playing along, so I’m spoiled.  Think: Barenboim playing Brahms with Perlman, Zukerman or de Peyer, or Ashkenazy playing Beethoven with Perlman, or Barenboim or Brendel or Andras Schiff doing Schubert songs with someone like Peter Schreier.

Is it cruel to write like this about a man who is musically many miles above what I could ever be?  Well, yes.  But if you will put yourself on the same stage as someone like Kavakos, you are going to be seriously outshone if you do not yourself shine brightly. 

Whereas this pianist made me think of other pianists, Kavakos made me forget all the other violinists completely.  But, I have two complaints to aim at him.  First, why does he not get himself a good pianist, as good as he is at the violin?  Maybe not some world-class big name, but at least some younger player who might one day soon be such a star.  Or, does Kavakos actually like to be making all the running?  If so, he is dooming himself to the same mediocrity that he chose or allowed himself last Friday to be accompanied by.

And second: that walrus wheezing.  During the Janacek, I worked out who was doing this.  It was Kavakos!  My friend told me that when younger, Kavakos was horribly fat and a horrible wheezer.  But recently, he slimmed down and stopped wheezing.  But even more recently, he has put some weight back on and is wheezing again.  Reviewers both of concerts and of CDs are often absurdly indulgent about classical musicians who provide unwelcome accompaniment in the form of sniffing or groaning, which are regarded not as professional incompetence but as evidence of depth of feeling.  Think: Glenn Gould, Colin Davis, Rudolf Serkin, and the Lindsay String Quartet.  I despise this, both the noises and the indulging of them.  It’s like a painter excitedly splashing mud on his water colours, or an overwrought poet sprinkling more random letters in among his poetry.  Pissing in the soup, basically.  So, Kavakos, as well as losing that pianist, lose some weight and the wheezing.

The rest of the audience absolutely did not share my lack of enthusiasm about this event, for they clapped wildly after each piece, and at the end demanded two encores.  These were display pieces, and I recognised the tune of the second one without knowing what it was.  I enjoyed both very much, because for these all that was required from the pianist was deferential accompaniment.