Saturday, 3 February 2018

Lisa Batiashvili, and Sergei Prokofiev

I have been a fan of Lisa Batiashvili's violin playing for the past 17 years, ever since her début CD for EMI back in the year 2000. I don't think she has ever really disappointed me (though I never much cared for her unaccompanied Bach partita back on that début CD). In the world of post-18th century music for violin and orchestra, Lisa Batiashvili is a major contender in almost every work. Her trademark qualities — apart from superb violin playing — are her regal, lyrical, and deliberate playing, together with clear enunciation; nothing is blurred or slurred with Lisa at the helm.

I have never had much of a relationship with Sergei Prokofiev, apart from his music for violin. I am aware he wrote operas, symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and piano concertos, but I know little of them. His two sonatas for violin and piano, together with his two concertos for violin and orchestra, are works I know inside out from long acquaintance. I snatched up a new CD featuring Prokofiev's two violin concertos, with Lisa Batiashvili (and orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Like her recent Tchaikovsky concerto recording, the recording of the first Prokofiev concerto underlines the lyrical nature of much of the writing, whilst down-playing some of Prokofiev's more “devilish” and iconoclastic passages. Batiashvili comes over as a gentle soul at heart. Joseph Szigeti, back in 1935 with the unlikely aid of Thomas Beecham, brought far more raw savagery to much of the music of the first violin concerto.

Prokofiev's second violin concerto has less of the raw energy of the first, reflecting the difference in Prokofiev's world between 1917 (the first concerto) and the second concerto (1935). In 1917, Prokofiev could be avant-garde and semi-revolutionary; in 1935, popularity and lack of provocation were more important considerations, as was his impending return to the “People's Russia”. Predictably, the second concerto suits Lyrical Lisa even more than the first. Super castanets in the finale ! The orchestral violins in the second movement (where they sometimes play almost in duet with the solo violin) are a bit feeble; this is a chamber orchestra, after all (Chamber Orchestra of Europe). I am not clear as to the definition of a “chamber orchestra”, as opposed to “orchestra”. This one has an admirable tuba (do many chamber orchestras have tubas?) and all play extremely well, except the orchestral violins do seem to lack “heft” when required. Whatever; this recording goes on the podium as one of the very best of Prokofiev's second violin concerto, though Batiashvili could have been a little more “devilish” during the final moments of the work.

The recording is good, with the solo violin prominent. As usual with the Deutsche Grammophon label incarnation, the CD is aimed at young men who are going to be won over to the music of Sergei Prokofiev by the four “glamour” photos of Batiashvili in the booklet (with not even one black-and-while photo of Sergei Prokofiev, who did, in some ways, have something to do with the music on the CD). The highly agreeable “fillers” on the current CD are three short pieces from Prokofiev's ballets, arranged for violin and orchestra by Tamas Batiashvili, Lisa's father. Enjoyable. Let us hope all those inflamed young men rush out and buy the CD and also get to know some of Prokofiev's most agreeable music. The booklet is probably very erudite, but grey print on a yellow background is too much of a challenge to eyes over 50 years old. One leaves that kind of reading to the young men at whom the booklet and CD presentation are aimed. The print is small but, after all, space was needed for the photos !

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