Audience members at this UCSB Arts & Lectures–sponsored recital got to hear the artist before they could see him, as a few notes of the musician’s offstage warm-up wafted out of the wings before Leonidas Kavakos made his entrance. Tall and ascetically thin, with long, shoulder-length black hair and clad in a black silk Chinese jacket and tuxedo pants, Kavakos the Greek looked every inch a Bohemian, but once he began playing, all such superficial matters were forgotten as the music took over for the next two hours. Kavakos has been touring with Enrico Pace (and alternately with Emanuel Ax) and playing the sonatas of Beethoven all over the world for the past year, and he really hit his stride for this all-Beethoven recital, which gleamed with sonic perfection from beginning to end. Kavakos conveyed the dreaminess and latent passion of the Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, with elegance and controlled force, hinting at what was to come. Pace was an extraordinarily sympathetic partner in the music making, and he handled all the challenges that came his way with seeming ease.
The Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”), allowed Kavakos to display his very exact phrasing and pleasing, liquid tone. The piece had Bach-like moments of counterpoint at the outset, but they soon gave way to the more familiar Beethoven mode of call and response. It was on this piece that we began to see the fire within this musician’s outward calm — the red lining of his black silk coat, as it were.
The red within the black was on full display in the second half, as Kavakos offered a stunning, highly memorable reading of the Sonata No. 9 in A Major (“Kreutzer”). One of the great wonders of the repertoire met with an exuberant yet focused celebrant, and the result was inspired. A bracing Stravinsky encore sent everyone out the door and into the night a little dazzled from this unusually powerful display.