For the Greek violinist, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto stands apart from the rest of the repertoire – and requires a very special method of interpretation

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Leonidas Kavakos © Jonas Holthaus

I was quite young when I heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the first time. We had the 1959 recording of David Oistrakh performing with the French National Radio Orchestra under André Cluytens and I knew it was an amazing piece, although I didn’t understand what made it so great.

I didn’t begin to practise it until I was 16 years old, and after I’d obtained my violin diploma from the Hellenic Conservatory in Athens. I played the Paganini and Sibelius concertos, after concentrating on virtuosic pieces for a few years, although I hadn’t played many concertos by that time. Only then did my teacher Stelios Kafantaris tell me: ‘Now we can look at the Beethoven Violin Concerto.’ He explained that the piece required a completely different approach, and that he didn’t want me to practise it as if for performance: ‘It’s important that you study it now, so that you can grow with it. Then, when you do come to perform it, you’ll already have memories and experience on which to build.’ 

For me, the Beethoven stood out because there’s a great kind of simplicity to it, yet it has such endless possibilities for expression. The number of ways to interpret the structure and connect the different areas of the piece is amazing. It’s not about how you play; it’s how you think. This is a difficult thing for young players to grasp, because they’re encouraged to add, and add, and add to their playing. They want to grow, flourish and expand their range. The Beethoven Concerto is beyond all of that: it requires you to know where to step back, and where to be strong. That’s something that needs time and experience. Even now, if I’ve been away from the Concerto for a long time, I’ll always question what I’ve been doing up until that point – whether there are things that I can build on in a different way, or that I need to revise completely.

I’ve had the luck and privilege to study for ten years with the Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados. I’ve found his advice particularly valuable because he doesn’t play the violin! Listening to him has given me the opportunity to approach music in a different way: string players tend to put the focus on the playing, which I think can sometimes get in the way of interpretation. A pianist, for example, doesn’t want to discuss bowing technique or left-hand vibrato – but they’ll be able to focus on harmonies in a different way, or the compositional DNA of the music. And once you understand things like that, it’s easier to include an element of instinct into performance. That balance between intellect and instinct is something else it takes a lifetime to get right.

Many of the legendary violinists had enormous personality, and often when I hear their recordings of the Concerto I think they’re bringing their own huge personality to bear on the piece, rather than trying to find what Beethoven would have liked to hear. To me, that’s the key to interpreting the work. I try to bring out the heart and charisma of the man who revolutionised so much of the musical repertoire. The Concerto is one of the most serene works he wrote, with a dream-like quality that flows as naturally as Mozart – but when you look at the score it looks like a war zone! It’s almost impossible to comprehend how much effort it takes to produce something that seems so effortless. So, although no one can say what Beethoven wanted, you can still try to understand it. Pieces like these are like looking at the stars. You can’t ever touch them – you can only look at what they project to gain understanding.