The practice of programming the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as a point of departure in recitals featuring more recent compositions has taken a firm hold on the world of chamber music in recent years. This concert featured Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016 as the prelude to Ferruccio Busoni’s Sonata No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 36a in the first half, and Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1014 as the lead into the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major, Op. 134 of Dmitri Shostakovich in the second. The teaming of Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Yuja Wang (piano), two of contemporary music’s biggest stars, naturally led to a high degree of anticipation for this, the first in UCSB Arts & Lectures 2021-2022 Classical Greats series. Their performance together did not disappoint.
A strict, somewhat dry approach to the Bach Sonata No. 3, particularly on the part of Kavakos, served as an effective counterpoint to the sweeping romanticism of Busoni’s extravagant composition in E minor. Despite having spent much of his career in the scholarly study of Bach, and notwithstanding the inclusion of variations on an aria from Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, Busoni’s writing in this piece is searching and enigmatic, especially in the sprawling third movement. Kavakos sounded very much at home in this piece, and Wang reminded us that the composer was a pianist while never outshining or overwhelming the violin part.
The duo reserved the real fireworks for the finale, which displayed Shostakovich at his most jagged and idiosyncratic. The artists’ extreme confidence and musicality in performing these challenging pieces made this concert an occasion to savor.