Beethoven's only Violin Concerto is one of the great staples of the orchestral repertory. Or so I've been told. Repeatedly. No doubt due a character defect (I have many), for me at least, the work is a tough sell. Performances that other critics describe as "magisterial," "aristocratic," "relaxed," "autumnal," "Olympian," "measured and thoughtful" might all represent perfectly legitimate approaches to the score, but alas, they tend to leave me cold. In the presence of a performance that gives undue emphasis to the concerto's lyricism and introspection, I'll soon find myself wondering what else I could be listening to instead. The recent recording by Vadim Repin and RiccardoMuti (with the Vienna Philharmonic) is only the most recent example A high profile performance to be sure, very elegant and refined; it does everything right but bring the music to life.
Over the years, I've amassed multiple and diverse accounts of the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos, but I've kept only a handful of the violin concerto. To these ears, the greatest performance of all is the 1932 collaboration of Joseph Szigeti and Bruno Walter (currently only available as an Opus Kura release). Walter and Szigeti approach the work with a sinewy intensity usually reserved for the major symphonies. Over the course of the performance, the tension never flags, not even in the slow movement. The few other versions I admire are much in the same mold: Ida Haendel with Rafael Kubelik (an early mono recording for HMV), Leonid Kogan and ConstantinSilvestri, Issac Stern and Leonard Bernstein, and David Oistrach and Andre Cluytens. But still, I've never found a performance to quite match the fiery authority of Walter and Szigeti. Until now, that is.
Two years ago I was pretty much blown away by a version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto by the then twenty-eight year old Lisa Batiashvili. What I most admired about that performance was Batiashvili's fearlessness, her willingness to take risks, to expose herself emotionally . The playing was single-minded, edgy, sometimes over the top, but compelling throughout. It still seems to me one of the great performances of that concerto, and if you haven't heard it yet, I urgently recommend you do so without delay.
Needless to say, I was very eager to hear this new release: how would she approach a more traditional, established work?
It didn't take long to find out. The opening tutti is played with a ferocity that recalls the Fifth Symphony, and the performance takes off from there. Initially I had some reservations about the wisdom of using a chamber orchestra for this recording, and I also questioned Batiashvili's rather daring decision to conduct it herself. But I was wrong on both counts. The Bremen ensemble is able to summon the rough-hewn energy Batiashvili is asking for, but without any trace of heaviness. One hears everything: the interplay between the winds and soloist is one of the great joys of this recording.
And yet again I'm impressed by the violinist's boldness and individuality. This is an urgent, life-or-death reading that still manages to balance the contrasting elements in the score. After the high tension of the first movement, Batiashvili is able to suggest both the vulnerability and the restlessness of the Larghetto. The Rondo, perfectly straightforward in the hands of most violinists, is here intensely characterized. Bastiashvili's playing is shy, almost reticent at the beginning, then gradually builds to an exuberant, ecstatic conclusion. For all of the seeming spontaneity and impulsiveness on display here, there's a strong sense of inevitability throughout. Like a great performance of one of the major symphonies, the concerto unfolds as a single dramatic arc.
One of the original features of the Sibelius disc was that it paired that familiar work with Magnus Lindborg's complex, but rewarding concerto (a work that had been written for Batiashvili). Here again she eschews the usual thing (pairing the Beethoven Concerto with the lesser fare of his two Romances) and instead gives us something surprising. Sulkhan Tsintsadze is a contemporary Georgian composer and his miniatures recall Liszt's Rhapsodies in character and Bartok's various dance suites in sound — gypsy music, in other words. Though these six miniatures are not as consequential as Lindborg's Concerto, a major work after all, they are thoroughly entertaining.
The sound, while not of demonstration quality, is excellent: spacious, transparent, realistic. Both orchestras — the Bremen in the Beethoven and the Georgian in the Tsintsadze — play as if extensions of the violinist's will and passion. For those who prefer a dash of hot sauce with their Beethoven Violin Concerto, this performance is a must.