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Jean Sibelius
Violin Concerto in D Minor

Magnus Lindberg
Violin Concerto

Lisa Batiashvili, violin; Saraki Oramo conducting
the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

  We seem to be experiencing a golden age of supremely gifted, young women violinists: Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Midori, Sarah Chang, Leila Josefowicz, to name but a few. Based on her performances of these two very different and incredibly demanding concertos, it's clear the twenty-nine-year-old Georgian-born Lisa Batiashvili belongs in that select company. Here she gives us not only a fresh, invigorating and entirely individual take on the familiar and often recorded Sibelius, but also a major new concerto by an important contemporary composer (a work that was written expressly for her). Though Batiashvili has been performing with major orchestras since she finished second in the International Sibelius Competition at age 16, the youngest performer to be so honored, this just so happens to be her first concerto recording, and it is a most auspicious debut.

Since the premiere recording by Jascha Heifetz and Sir Thomas Beecham in 1935, we have never lacked for great performances of the D minor Concerto. Among this embarrassment of riches, one can find historical performances by David Oistrakh, Heifetz (his remake with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony), Issac Stern, Ida Haendal, and Ginette Niveau, as well as more up-to-date versions by the likes of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kyung-Wha Chung, Viktoria Mullova, Cho-Liang Lin, Sarah Chang, Vadim Repin, and (most recently) Joshua Bell. For the past several years, I've found myself returning to Leonidas Kavakos with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska (originally recorded for the BIS label, now available from Musical Heritage Society). That performance perfectly balances the lyrical and dramatic elements in the concerto and does so in vivid, naturally balanced sound that could serve as the paradigm for recording a violin concerto.

Given my allegiance to that recording, it took me a few listening sessions to get used to Batiashvili. Kavakos stresses the nobility of the music, and like many other violinists, approaches the emotional content of the score with a sense of restraint that makes the big climaxes sound all the more heroic. More brash and youthful, Batiashvili throws caution to the winds, with a passionate and intensely dramatic reading that holds nothing back. In lesser hands, such an approach would risk sounding overwrought, unidiomatic, too much like Tchaikovsky. But Batiashvili never violates the spirit of the score, and knows when to let the music breathe. Her pure, singing tone is never harsh or grating, and her remarkably assured virtuosity is always at the service of the music. Though Batiashvili's interpretation follows a narrative arc that takes us from the restlessness and anguish of the first movement to the rapt inwardness of the second, to the ecstatic heights of the finale, it is accomplished with all of the impulsiveness, spontaneity and sheer visceral excitement of the 2007 concert where it was recorded live.

I've never had much luck with the music of Magnus Lindberg, who is probably Finland's greatest living composer. But this 27-minute concerto seems to me not just his most approachable score, but also the most important work in the form since the concerto of John Adams. Don't get me wrong. This is challenging, complex music in an unashamedly modernist idiom, a bustling, shape-shifting work full of startling surprises. But it has many treasures for those who like a little adventure in their listening. For all the density of the textures, there are more than occasional echoes of Sibelius: a darkly brooding theme that recurs, a resonant brass climax that sounds as if it could have come from the elder composer's Fifth Symphony.  Also like Sibelius, Lindberg makes incredible demands on the soloist, including a lengthy cadenza in the last movement. But here too, Batiashvili's self-effacing virtuosity is equal to every challenge, and unfailingly expressive throughout.

Sakari Orami, who took over the Birmingham Orchestra after Marin Alsop left for Baltimore, recorded a complete Sibelius symphony cycle that was highly praised by critics, then immediately withdrawn by Warner Brothers. (Hats off to the guys down in marketing!) Here he is a deeply sympathetic partner in both works, and the Finnish orchestra plays the music of their countrymen with a special authority and distinction. The balance between orchestra and soloist sounds natural, and the transparent recording, if not quite the equal of the Kavakos/Vanska, is rich and detailed. At last, a new recording of the Sibelius I can recommend enthusiastically.

 

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