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New Classical Tracks: Leonidas Kavakos, 'Virtuoso'

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Leonidas Kavakos.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT -  A virtuoso is highly skilled musician or artist. Leonidas Kavakos is a virtuoso, and he celebrates the artistry of other great violinists on his new recording, which is simply titled Virtuoso.


Francisco Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra," originally for classical guitar, is a piece Leonidas Kavakos has played many times as an encore. The violin arrangement that appears on this recording was transcribed by legendary violinist Ruggiero Ricci. Kavakos was in search of another transcription several years ago when he met Ricci for the first time. It was Pagnini's "La Campanella." "At some point," Leonidas recalls, "I said to him, 'I have this incredible recording of yours with the arrangement and I'm trying to find this music and it's impossible to find. Do you know where I can find it or do you have it?' And he looked at me - he was this very short man - and he looked at me and he said, 'Well, show me your hand.' So I showed him my hand. And he says, 'Well, I'll send it to you.' He was, in his way, very humorous. But also I think he was very right in what he asked because that particular arrangement has enormous extensions for the left hand if the hand is not flexible or big enough. That was my very first acquaintance with him.

"Then I saw him later in his life here in America," Leonidas continues, 'when he was living out in the West. And at some point when I had found this Tarrega and I mentioned to him, 'This is a great transcription and I'm playing it more and more as an encore in the concerts,' he had a beautiful smile on his face, he was very happy about it.

"Most of the pieces that are in the recording here, they are not often recorded or played," Leonidas explains. "Some of them in fact are very rarely recorded. You know, especially the Britten is a piece that I have always wanted to learn but never had the chance."

That piece by Benjamin Britten is titled "Reveille." Britten composed it for his Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa, who really hated getting up in the morning. "And the amazing genius of Britten," Leonidas says, "is the fact that of course, he brings us immediately to this very sleepy and hypnotized atmosphere where the violin sounds almost as if it's coming from someplace far and then it comes further and further, more and more let's say in front of the face. And we can also sense this kind of unwillingness to get started, this kind of laziness, like exactly more or less how everybody feels in the morning when one has to wake up, whether being a violinist or not, especially if it's very early.

"The piano remains more or less the same, very simple, the piano part. But the violin part kind of evolves and he uses also technical ways or tricks of the violin that few people know and he uses them extremely well. So we have the harmonics, the left hand pizzicatos built up and then we have two lines accompanied by pizzicato left hand and tremolo on the right hand.

"And this somehow when one thinks that, 'OK, now this is starting to go then again,' it gets lazier and lazier and lazier … practically at the end, it dies out and then all of a sudden at the very end this person has to run because he's late."

The piece just before that, out of which the Britten segues beautifully, is by Ernst von Dohnanyi. It has a Gypsy flair but is also lush and romantic. "Very much so," Leonidas concurs. "I mean, that is first of all the central movement of a piece called Ruralia Hungarica. This is the second movement which is … I would say the main emotion from this piece is the nostalgia. This is my feeling. So this music brings the nostalgia and the pride together of somebody who wants to be rooted but can't - he keeps moving around. But as he moves around, he also takes with him all his background and all his experiences in life, the roots that where he or she comes from. Like Hungary, Romania … this is the area where this music and this kind of sentiment is expressed so perfectly on the violin with the great tradition of the folk music and the Gypsy fantastic violinists that they have for generations now. So it really projects this kind of atmosphere."

And before that, we hear the Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, which sounds like a full ensemble. I asked Leonidas to tell me about this arrangement created by a Czech virtuoso. "Yeah, I mean this is an amazing arrangement by Vasa Pihoda," he says. "This was an absolutely incredible violinist of the past that I think very few young people would know about today. And he made this transcription which I think is a fantastic one. It works extremely well. And the way the piano part is written is what makes it sound like what he describes. Like there is practically a full ensemble there. It's just so well done."

Each of these rarely heard encores are just so well done in the hands of Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos - who brings them to life on his latest recording, Virtuoso.

Enter for a chance to win a copy of this recording. This week on New Classical Tracks, you can enter for a chance to win a copy of Virtuoso by Leonidas Kavakos. Winners will be drawn at random. Be sure to enter by midnight CDT on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.