CD review: Echoes in Time

Echoes of Time

Lisa Batiashvili
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Pianist: Hélène Grimaud
There’s an air to this disc - its haunting and sometimes oppressive.  I can’t put my finger on it - the acoustic of the Munich Herkulessaal play its part in the orchestral works.  There is something utterly direct about Batiashvilli’s playing which I’ve found utterly compelling since i heard her as a BBC Young Artist play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Proms with Vänskä in 1990
The music is a fascinating collection which spans with across a Soviet-Russian-Georgian axis and puts Stalinist USSR in the dock somewhat. 
The CD begins with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto which was written in the late 1940s but withheld for performance until after Stalin’s death.  The history and analysis of the work is well described here.
Batiashvilli is brave to launch her career as a Deutsche Grammophon artist with this concerto - the Universal company’s German heritage has always been very shy of the Soviet composers and still has no Shostakovich symphony or concerto cycle in its catalogue.  But it is a resoundingly convincing and characterful launch to this aspect of her career. The opening Nocturne is worthy of study in itself not just for the artistry of the soloist - ambiguously slipping between reverie and nightmare (like Mahler), or the delicate support of the orchestra and its conductor but also a lesson in how to make a distant intimacy real within the limitations of stereo sound.  It is very creepy at times, but warms and wavers like a breeze.
The rumbustious scherzo is typically Shostakovich and its in these moments orchestras and soloists have time to show their muscle.  This violinist has an awesome punch - like a martial arts expert extending their arm to that last inch which reveals their true ferocity.  The soloist isn’t crude or harsh though - its a steady, grounded, precise tone and hold on the music.  Agility and power are required in equal measure and all of this is met with fantastic precision from the orchestra. The slow Passacaglia, layered with meaning and implication is the heart of this piece and might be described as at the heart of the composer’s response to the post-war climate of fear and intimidation he lived in.  It is - in the best way - ambiguous and deeply moving music and Batiashvili’s talent here is, I think, not to overplay the hand. It is music which one might imagine held so much for those who knew the composer: in many ways they may have been too close to it.  And each was playing with fire in Soviet Russia at the time but those nods musical nods and winks and knowing looks only go so far with modern audiences and will eventually be part only of the folk law around this piece. This is an exceptionally poignant movement and Salonen and Batiashvili make a very fine job of presenting both text and sub-text.
The riotious last movement, Burlesque, is shorn of the contrasting slow introduction we hear in other DSCH playground pieces.  True enough it is comedic and upbeat - but to bring it off with such reckless pace takes true artistry and once more the orchestra are spot on.
To say whether this is a reference modern recording is beyond my experience - but it is a very fine piece of music making and as the entry onto the big stage of one of the few concert violinists I’ll pay to see - its a grand entrance.
The move from one form of expressive ambiguity to another quite different one is quite a stride: Giya Kancheli’s V and V is an extraordinary piece ambiguous in the sound world it conjures and in the conclusions it reaches.  it is not long but has a heavenly length that many great masters aspire to create but few can manage.  It sits alongside the time dilating skills of Bach, Chopin and Debussy for me.
Key to the piece is a taped recording of the voice of Mr Gonashvili, a Georgian singer of world renown until his accidental death, falling out of an apple tree, in 1988.  Search YouTube for his singing and you will find a soft cool tremulous tenor which excelled in Georgian folk music and beyond.  Kancheli cites this is the voice of eternal heaven in a piece which pits that peace against the violin and orchestra representing our real and all too unheavenly life.  The piece was premiered in 1995 with Gideon Kremer as soloist and Yehudi Menuhin as conductor.
It is a bitterly haunting piece which finds no resolution - but very beautiful too.  I admire Salonen unreserved presentation of the orchestral dischords and Batiashvili’s unwavering line.  It holds my attention and makes me uneasy in equal measure.  For me it is a great discovery.
There follows a sweetmeat - the Lyrical Waltz from Seven Dolls’ Dances by Shostakovich arranged by Tamas Batiashvili. Another poised, flexible and elegant side of Batiashvili’s playing is showcased.
The next piece requires another gear change. Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel is played by Batiashvili accompanied by Hélène Grimaud - and recorded at IRCAM in Paris. Like many pieces by this composer we do sometimes get a feeling of outrageous simplicity but it is like a prayer - the more we mediate upon it the greater complexity it reveals and in doing that truths come to mind and heart.
The control shown by both players in this piece is pretty amazing and one would credit the nerve of any classical music superstar in recording this piece because one could see it being dismissed as a party piece. So little happens - but buy into it and it is full of wonders.  
Part’s work, to my mind, is a spare, thoughtful reaction to modern life where we hear so much sound - taking up from John Cage.  His meditations bring much of that into stark relif and one wonders if it does the same for the players too.
Too thoughtful artists act together in this one and for those who think Grimaud a bit of a flat track bully - this should balance that bias a little.  Batiashvili controls those long slow notes perfectly with a exquisite discrete vibrato ending each.
Finally as if her artistry hasn’t been fully explore Batiashvili presents a transcription of the Rachmaninov Vocalaise with Grimaud as accompanist.  This gives her full license to deploy her singing tone.  Deeply responsive and assured, never overly expressive but strong and firm and telling.  These are her finest qualities as a violinist - she does not wring out the instrument or tug on the heart strings - it stands alone, perhaps sometimes even lonely, but always true to the composer, never interposing - and long may that continue - for that is noble artistry.


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