Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 (Op.99)
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 12 April, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City
It is a rare occasion when a fine performance of a Sibelius symphony is not the highlight of a concert programme, but on this occasion Sakari Oramo’s idiomatic reading of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony was overshadowed by the even more compelling performances that preceded and followed it. This New York Philharmonic concert opened with an incredibly brilliant and powerful performance by Lisa Batiashvili of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1, and concluded with a moving rendition of Sibelius’s Tapiola.
On the previous evening the Philharmonic had offered a preview of the Shostakovich concerto in the last of this season’s “Inside the Music with Peter Schickele” concerts, featuring Schickele’s analysis of that work with illustrations by Batiashvili and the orchestra and a full performance of the concerto, after which Batiashvili and Oramo answered questions from members of the audience.
Lisa Batiashvili was born in Soviet Georgia and has been based in Munich since 1994. In the following year, at age 16, she was the youngest ever entrant in the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki, where she captured the Second Prize, and she has since established herself as one of the world’s leading violinists. Her performance on this occasion – like her dazzling world premiere performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto at last summer’s “Mostly Mozart Festival” here – certainly bears out that reputation, and the Philharmonic’s high regard for her talent.
Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, an intermittent visitor to the Philharmonic over the last several years, is music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (an appointment nearing its end) and chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He will become chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra beginning in the 2008-2009 season.
The collaboration of Batiashvili and Oramo was electric, with soloist and orchestra working seamlessly together. The concerto’s first movement (‘Nocturne’) opened in the cellos and double basses, with Batiashvili spinning out the solo violin’s long, unbroken melodic line, surrounding simple string chords at first, then woodwinds as well, and finally becoming lower, slower and more melancholic as the brass and lowest woodwinds joined the orchestral tapestry. She evoked a clear and lustrous tone from her 1709 “Engleman” Stradivarius (on loan to her from the Nippon Music Foundation) across the instrument’s full range, from moody passages in low register to sustained harmonics at significant points in the movement, including its conclusion. Oramo, refraining from exaggerated gestures on the podium, maintained a steady beat that well reflected the movement’s unrelenting darkness.
In the ‘Scherzo’. the mood changed completely, with both the solo violin and the orchestra playing in a sardonic, jocular vein that is often found in Shostakovich’s music. (On the previous evening, Schickele illustrated this by having the orchestra play excerpts from this movement and the opening of Shostakovich’s First Symphony.) Batiashvili’s double stops, energetic bowing attacks, spiccato passages, glissandos, pizzicatos and rapid passagework were all dazzling. As the music became more bouncy, so did Oramo’s gestures as he skilfully managed the movement’s many dynamic changes and odd rhythms – including a klezmer-influenced, dance-like passage. The level of excitement grew unabated as the movement neared its end, and then became even more intense in the final moments before the sudden ending.
The third movement ‘Passacaglia’ opened with the persistent, dirge-like passacaglia theme, played Andante by the double basses, cellos and timpani, with the cor anglais and lower winds adding a soft chorale-like sound just before the solo violin’s entrance. The violin’s melodic line, which Batiashvili played with great warmth and beauty of tone, continued virtually unbroken through the remainder of the movement, as the orchestra continued the passacaglia theme, for the most part in a very low register. The violin’s slow, sorrowful theme underwent tension-building harmonic changes before returning to its original lyrical form, and then the violin briefly took up the passacaglia theme before softly beginning the monumental cadenza that links to the finale.
Batiashvili’s playing of the cadenza was truly a tour de force. Beginning at a slow pace with intermittent pauses, she gradually increased both tempo and volume, utilising double stops and strongly accented down-bows to raise the level of dramatic intensity as she played increasingly rapid figures, eventually becoming lightening fast, with Batiashvili dashing the notes off with apparent ease, interrupted by strong down-bowed chords. Toward the end of the cadenza, the violin recalled and then deconstructed the dance-like theme from the scherzo, ending with increasingly rapid fingering and sweeping up-bows, the timpani’s sudden interruption beginning the final ‘Burlesque’, a syncopated passage in which the flute and xylophone announced the movement’s theme. (Shostakovich had originally intended the solo violin to play the theme, but assigned it to the orchestra instead at the urging of David Oistrakh, for whom the concerto was written, in order to provide the soloist with a much-needed break after the arduous cadenza.) Oramo sustained this Allegro con brio’s percussive, circus-like atmosphere (albeit, as Schickele termed it, “a circus from hell”). Batiashvili’s virtuosity continued right up to the concerto’s exciting, fast-paced ending, capping off what can only be described as a great performance of a great work.
Following the interval, Oramo led a performance of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony that captured its overarching genial spirit, a mood quite uncharacteristic of the composer’s symphonic œuvre (and which also contrasted with Tapiola”). The cheerfulness of this symphony is almost completely relentless, with the only real hints of darkness reserved for the final movement.
Oramo took the gentle, Allegro molto moderato first movement at a pleasant tempo, with the tender opening theme in the violins and a lovely oboe solo establishing a mood of great serenity. He evoked a sweetness of sound from the Philharmonic’s strings that did much to establish and maintain that mood. Complex interplay between the violins and lower strings was carried off with precision, as was a passage for winds, chorale-like brass, and an overarching horn theme. At the end of the movement, Oramo made effective use of brief intervals of silence to build drama, although the movement did not end when the music, with brass and timpani prominent, reached its dramatic peak, instead concluding anticlimactically.
Neither of the two middle movements – the second a Theme and Variations and the third a scherzo – is a slow movement, and Oramo took them at a somewhat fast, yet measured pace. Much of the development of the gentle theme played by the flute to open the Allegro moderato second movement was left to the winds, accompanied by soft, rapid figures on the strings, which also played a dramatic, mid-movement variation. In the Poco vivace third movement, Oramo kept the strings pulsing with swirling, syncopated figures, punctuated by the harp and woodwinds, maintaining tension that exploded briefly as the brass and timpani brought the movement to an exciting and dramatic finish.
The Allegro molto finale returned to the genial spirit with which the symphony began – and never really abandoned. In the middle part of the movement, as the timpani, horns and trombones weighed in to darken the tone of proceedings, Oramo became more visibly animated in his gestures, until the flutes and other winds, joined by the strings, restored cheerful feelings. Finally, a lovely extended woodwind passage was followed by radiant and delicate playing by the violins as the symphony wound down to its quiet ending.
In contrast to the pastoral mood of the Sixth Symphony, Tapiola is decidedly – and explicitly – sylvan. As with so many of his earlier works, Sibelius returned for inspiration to the “Kalevala”, Finland’s national epic, in which Tapiola is the woodland domain of Tapio, the lord of forest animals. This, Sibelius’s last major composition, was commissioned in 1926 by Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony – one of the orchestras that soon afterward merged to create the New York Philharmonic.
Tapiola portrays the image of the forests, expressed in a quatrain that precedes the published score, as “ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams”. Sibelius builds upon a simple theme to create a dark atmosphere, filled with tension and drama, which Oramo and the Philharmonic conveyed most effectively. The wind section, including piccolo and contrabassoon, contributed to the overall “dusky” atmosphere of the forests and represented the woodland creatures that inhabit them with chattering motifs in the oboe and bassoon and piccolo glissandi. The brass and timpani figured prominently at crucial dramatic moments, but it was the incisive and cohesive playing of the strings that was the most impressive as they created a wide range of atmospheric effects. All of this was ably held together by Oramo’s masterful control of dynamics, tempos, and even silences, to deliver the full impact of one of Sibelius’s greatest scores..