Unless you’re a classical music obsessive, chances are you aren’t familiar with that many contemporary violinists. Then again, if you do know one, chances are it’s Leonidas Kavakos. Or at least it should be. Considered among the greatest living violinists – he may be the best, though true art transcends superlatives and the need for ranking – the Greek virtuoso has been dazzling concert goers and connoisseurs for over three decades.
Whether or not you’re a classical music obsessive, chances are you do know the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Everyone does because Mozart is kind of the best. Again, the artistry required for symphonic composition and orchestral arrangement goes well beyond the obsessive need to be the greatest of all time, a more modern taxonomical concept that likely wouldn’t have even registered in Mozart’s own era (despite the fictionalized envy of Antonio Salieri). Still, Mozart is kind of the best. From a purely mathematical standpoint, Mozart’s output over a relatively short lifetime will never be matched. Mozart lived to the age of 35 and composed over 50 symphonies and 22 operas; Ludwig von Beethoven died at age 56 having composed 9 symphonies a single opera, Fidelio.
Yet precisely because Mozart is the best, his music presents a challenge to any performer or conductor to breathe fire into his works. Mozart remains required listening, but at the same time, how many performances truly distinguish themselves? Enter Kavakos, who performed all five of Mozart’s violin concertos and conducted symphony no. 39 with the Camerata Salzburg in a 2006 recording. It’s said that the most skilled musicians find the space between the notes, and while that’s certainly evident in Kavakos’ interpretation of the concertos, it also falls short of describing the full impact. At certain moments throughout, the pieces will simply seem to come to life, as though the notes jumped off the score and into being, the way invisible light might suddenly refract into full color through a crystal. This liveliness has often been noted in Kavakos’ playing, with many attributing it to his family’s three generations of musical background and their attachment to Greek folk music. Perhaps being in Salzburg, the fabled city of Mozart’s birth, and overseeing one of the premier Mozart chamber orchestras inspired Kavakos. Or perhaps we should invoke another Austrian to speculate that Kavakos may have channeled his frustrations into the Freudian sublime, as he left his residency with the Camerata Salzburg under acrimonious circumstances with the organizational management.
Whatever the reason, Kavakos’ lone recording of Mozart’s works remains a true treasure in the modern history of classical music for the aficionado and the amateur alike. Kavakos has noted his preference to explore a variety of composers and their works; he’s perhaps best known in classical circles for his unique approach to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Still, there is value in rarity, and by his own logic, Kavakos might not bring the same spiritual energy to Mozart’s concertos or his most famous symphony today.