CD Review: Brahms Violin Concerto - Batiashvili

My first encounter with Elizabeth Batiashvili (as she was then) was in a radio broadcast of a Prom in 2000 - Osmo Vänskä conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra in Beethoven's Violin Concerto - an intriguing performance most notable for the malleable strength of Batiashvili's playing - no matter what the composer threw at her, she remained sure footed.  Her interpretation had an innocent power and her presence was somewhat reserved but resilient.  But together these qualities realised a memorably musical performance.

At that stage she was a BBC New Generation Artist - and the BBC know how to pick winners in that scheme - and she went on to regular concert dates and a few recordings (but not nearly enough). In 2008 I heard Batiashvili live in the Beethoven Concerto (more details click here) - again under Vänskä.  At that time I praised her willingness to "look Beethoven straight in the eye".  Her star has risen even higher since then (and at some stage Elizabeth turned to Lisa) and now she is an top artist at the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Her latest disc is dominated by a fine and interesting performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 recorded in the Lukaskirche in Dresden in June 2012; Christian Thielemann conducts the Dresden Staatskapelle. The disc also contains Three Romances for Violin and Piano by Clara Schumann with the pianist Alice Sara Ott - which are sweet and sad and beautiful - I want to hear more of Ott's playing. For those who download - the same pianist accompanies Batiashvili in Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 2 - a fiery mischievous performance I like very much.
Brahms' Violin Concerto was written for Joachim and premiered in 1879 - Lisa Batiashvili plays a Strad that belonged to Joachim.  So the music has some sort of pedigree on those grounds.  And more than that Batiashvili sounds as though she has been playing this concerto for years and displays the same technical assurance she showed in the Beethoven all those years ago.  Of course the challenge from Brahms is different especially because it is a much loved peice which has been long in the concert repetoire and the recording catalogue: it has had notable recordings through teh 20th century.  Along the way it's picked up a lot of sentiment that new artists like Batiashvili have sought to strip awayShe is sensitive and faithful to the score but she doesn't wallow or dwell and to his credit Thielemann doesn't either.  But she knows her own mind too - especially obvious when ditching Joachim's first movement cadenza and using a much more interesting one by Busoni instead.

There's a great deal to admire here - not least the soloist's refusal to get sentimental with Brahms.  Thielemann, in one of the many YouTube trailers for this recording, describes how Brahms is like an old steam loco - speeding up until he seems unstoppable.  And there is a grand momentum about this reading which plunges straight into the finale with so little dwelling on the gem of an slow movement that one might assume they were all in danger of missing a train.

I yearned for some of the haunting quality that marked out Batiashvili's last disc - of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto.  There are times, such as that triple stopped quiet transition for violin and strings (7'30") in the first movement where her tone is breathtaking.  Many years ago I wrote "Lachrymae" in my score above this section - probably pinched from Tovey - that's just the word for this passage: Batiashvili is at her most transcendental and the recording engineers are with her here. But the work's earthier moments demand a more open sound.  Then again, in those moments the orchestra sometimes loses out in the wide church acoustic, especially the high woodwind.

Theilemann's point making is sometimes a little forceful, but his handling of the interlude scored only for woodwind, at the beginning of the Adagio is wonderfully shaped and nuanced.

But overall this another major recording by Batiashvili - her skills are obvious but unostentatious.  Her musicality, depth and power never shaken.  And with this partnership we have a fresh, dramatic and bold view of a much lauded Brahms piece, here stripped of sentiment but full of feeling.

You can find the recording here on Spotify


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