Editor’s choice (January 2017)
There is no violinist currently playing the high-end of the international circuit that I would sooner go out of my way to hear than Lisa Batiashvili. There is something so super-intuitive about her playing that while she is performing the brilliance of her technique, the range of her colours and sheer invention of her phrasing, are subsumed into the intrigue (there seems to be no other word) of her musical storytelling. The last thing on the listener’s mind is how she tells that story but rather where it might be leading. Everything feels “in the moment”, a quality of improvisation like music created in the playing of it. Her musicality always comes with an element of surprise.
What strikes me (and indeed surprised me) more than anything about this popular coupling is the distinctive character that she and her seasoned collaborator Daniel Barenboim find for both pieces. For sure the pieces themselves belong in different sound worlds – and that could hardly be more apparent from the nature of the sound that soloist and orchestra have fashioned here – but it is the very particular musical personalities that make Tchaikovsky and Sibelius who they are that Batiashvili explores so tellingly.
The Tchaikovsky exudes a melancholic warmth fusing classical and romantic sensibilities. That’s a crucial balance in performing this music. The first statement of the first subject is tender and understated, the second a little more persuasive, but never is the poise and purity of Tchaikovsky’s innate classicism compromised. There is undeniable relish for the expressive opportunities that the piece throws up at every turn but for all the colour and invention of Batiashvili’s playing it is never ever self-regarding.
It’s interesting, too, that the generosity of Barenboim’s contribution, though on the well-upholstered side as you might expect from this seasoned traditionalist – the two big Polonaise-like tuttis are definitely at the Imperial end of the Russian experience – are still alive to Batiashvili’s vibrancy.
The first movement cadenza is a story within a story for her, an opportunity to muse on that which is at the heart of the work. And it finds release in the lovely central movement, so full of fantasy with muted and beautiful pianissimi. It’s a Pushkin short story.
Batiashvili’s tempo for the finale is on the articulate side of dashing with nimble footwork and pyrotechnics that have shape and agility not just crowd-pleasing brilliance (though that is, of course, there in spades). The folksy “drone” episodes with songful bassoon (Tchaikovsky’s sad but wise fool) are not overdone – characterisation not caricature – and the passage in harmonics just before the home stretch brings Barenboim’s limpid Berlin woodwinds deliciously to the fore.
With the Sibelius the temperature drops dramatically – not in terms of intensity but in accordance with the nature of the landscape. The elemental chill is in part written into the music, of course, but Barenboim and his Berliners pick up on the colour and cast of the writing giving it a sterner, craggier hue. Viola colour comes through notably and effectively in the first movement.
Batiashvili homes in here on the ethereal quality of the lyricism. The beautiful opening theme at first seems indivisible from the oscillating icy haze of the orchestral violins and maintains its mystery where other players might be inclined to exploit its beauty in riper tone and richer, more “expensive”, phrasing. That quiet intensity is maintained throughout achieving an extraordinary other-worldly quality in the recurring passage which feels its way like disappearing footsteps in the snow just prior to the first movement coda.
But equally Batiashvili is tuned in to the inherent wildness in this music and the fact that when Sibelius wrote it his own technique as a violinist (in keeping with many solo violinists of the day) had not yet caught up with what he was writing. The intensity that is so darkly expressive in the slow movement finds release and later abandon in the sometimes insane passage work of the finale. There is one particularly thrilling ascent to the upper reaches of the E-string just before the stark chordal punctuations of the finale page.
So a disc full of beautiful and inventive violin playing from one of the world’s most mesmerising talents. You can never second guess Batiashvili and that in part is what makes her so perpetually fascinating as a musician.