Intelligent, Discerning Musicianship from Lisa Batiashvili and Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, J.S. Bach, Telemann and Beethoven: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Paul Lewis (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.2.2015 (CS)

Schubert: Sonata (Duo) in A major D.574
Rondo Brillant in B minor D.895
J.S. Bach: Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’ BWV659 (trans. Ferruccio Busoni)
Telemann: Fantaisie for solo violin No.4 in D major TWV40:17
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No.10 in G major Op.96 (‘Cock-crow’)

Schubert’s works for violin and piano are not the most frequently performed music from among the composer’s chamber repertory, so the opportunity to hear and compare performances of his duos at two recent Wigmore Hall recitals has been a welcome one.  Last Monday Erich Höbarth and Susan Tomes presented an all-Schubert recital (review), and exactly one week later the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili took to the Wigmore Hall platform with her accompanist, Paul Lewis, to offer Schubert’s work in the context of his Baroque and Classical predecessors.

If Höbarth and Tomes had drawn forth the contrast of poise and restlessness which characterises Schubert’s Sonata (Duo) in A major, Batiashvili and Lewis emphasised its lyricism and joy.  Schubert was only twenty years old when he composed the Sonata in 1817.  The year before, ignoring his father’s objections, he had decided to abandon his teaching position and devote himself to composition, simultaneously leaving the family home and moving in with his friend Franz von Schober.   In the hands of Batiashvili and Lewis, the Sonata was truly a ‘young man’s’ work, fresh and expectant, full of happiness and hope – feelings that Schubert himself must surely have felt at the time of composition, newly unshackled as he was from the burdens of middle class duty and respectability.

There was a cheery blitheness in Lewis’s sashaying bass line at the start of the Allegro moderato, a slight emphasis on the dipping quaver which suggested the merest hint of a swagger.  The running triplets which elaborate the broad arcs of the beautifully simple melodic line were delivered with suave clarity by both performers, a spark of exuberance amid the lyrical arc.  When this material returned at the recapitulation, Lewis’s quaver seemed even more lazily nonchalant, and Batiashvili’s triplets cascaded like clear spring water.

Batiashvili’s tone is incredibly pure and beguiling, and the searching lines were wonderfully rich and sustained.  The range of Lewis’s articulation greatly enhanced the drama of the movement; staccato crotchets sprang airily from the bass, repeating crotchets in the middle voice pulsed gently beneath the violin melody at the start of the development section.  But, it was not only the innate tunefulness of the score that the players communicated, but also the composer’s burgeoning genius, as the precision of their interpretation and delivered revealed the complexity of the melodic interplay and the inventiveness of Schubert’s form.  Alert to details and sudden changes of impetus or colour, the movement was unfailingly ‘sunny’ but also mature.

The Scherzo, marked Presto by Schubert, was startlingly fast, but never at the expense of the musical coherence.  The exuberance of the tempo was balanced by the undemonstrative precision of the player’s spiccato articulation of the quietly spinning crotchets, and the combination was mesmerising.  There was wit, too, the fermata preceding the reprise of the main theme delayed just a millisecond longer during the repeat.   And, there was contrast: the rising chromatic scale with which the Trio commences was warm and silky, evolving into a melody which was elegant and subtly flirtatious.  The players found a richer, more penetrating tone in the Andantino, and in the double-stopped passages and oscillating octaves Batiashvili’s intonation was impeccable.  Small exchanges between the instruments and weaving middle-voice motifs were judiciously emphasised, revealing the movement’s profundity after the high spirits of the Scherzo.  The finale was definitely Allegro vivace but also had much grace and eloquence.

Schubert’s Rondo Brillant in B minor was written during the last year of the composer’s life, for the young Czech violinist Josef Slavik.  ‘Brillant’ it certainly is, and beyond the display of virtuosity demanded of soloist and accompanist there is perhaps less musical merit to recommend the work.  Lewis made ‘light’ work of the piano’s octaves, leaps and dense chords, while Batiashvili’s incisive attack was always bright and clean.  And, the performers slipped easily into a more poetic introspection in the lyrical interludes which repeatedly interrupt the bravura, tempering the fiery explosiveness with delicate intimacy.

After the interval, Lewis returned to the platform alone to present an astonishingly insightful and moving reading of Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’.  Shaping the motifs to form a chain of intertwining voices and sustaining the polyphonic dialogues with extraordinary perspicacity, Lewis made the music speak of unwavering spiritual certainty and strength; for its duration the Wigmore Hall possessed the quiet transcendence of a church.

Then it was Batiashvili’s turn to play Baroque music for a solo instrument, and she gave a whirlwind performance of Telemann’s Fantasia No.4, her bow barely brushing the strings in the multiple stopped chords of the Vivace, the bass notes swept up into the melodic line.  I found the tempo rather too breathless, though, the melody lost in the swirl of movement; and although the playing was always delicate there were some oddly accented notes which were a little jarring.  The Grave, too, was fairly brisk – though solemn in temperament – but the violinist showed the many colours she can paint in broad, powerful strokes. The concluding Allegro had enormous grace and charm; the double-stoppings were sustained with effortless lyricism and the movement had a wonderfully stylish refinement.

From the unaccompanied violin trill motif that begins Beethoven’s final violin sonata, Op.96 in G, Batiashvili radiated warmth and feeling.  Although the start of the exposition felt a little unsettled, with the repeat the performers established a balance and poise which endured to the sonata’s final bars.  Lewis accompanied supportively but knew when to bring spilling quavers, or unusual harmonic shifts, to the fore.  The rippling triplets and piquant dissonances at the start of the development generated stirring mystery and triggered a strong forward momentum.  The piano’s curving diminished seventh arcs at the close of the first movement were wonderfully transparent and cool, before the duo’s well-shaped crescendo created urgency at the close.

Batiashvili’s gorgeous tone allowed the Adagio espressivo to speak for itself, the sotto voce elaborations spilling forth with astonishing beauty.  The sense of naturalness was enhanced by both players’ relaxation and subtle flexibility in the flowing phrases.  The Scherzo was delicately fleet, the sfp accents ‘barely there’.  And, I was impressed by the overall coherence of the form of this movement, as the sweet, ascending melody of the Trio seemed to evolve inevitably from the falling slurs at Scherzo cadence, the former’s repeated pianissimo crotchets growing with equal ‘predictability’ back into the Scherzo theme.

In the Poco Allegretto Batiashvili enriched the elegant line with a full, plush bloom; Lewis, too, demonstrated both power and precision, especially in the bass – shaping the running quavers beneath the syncopated violin and right-hand lines with meticulousness and expression.  With the Adagio episode we slipped into a reverie, the piano’s trills and arabesques beautifully sensitive, and the players speaking as one voice in the complex exchanges.

Recent critics have acclaimed Batiashvili as “a violinist of ever-riveting depth and range”, “outstanding even among the very many fine violinists of her generation” and “a powerful musical voice with an exciting future”.  I can only concur with their praise: she possesses a ravishing sound, flawless technique and perfect intonation.  She also matched Lewis for intelligent, discerning musicianship.  This was a fabulous concert and I can’t wait to hear Batiashvili again.

Claire Seymour

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