Switzerland Ravel, Sibelius, Brahms: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 31.10.15 (JR)
Ravel – Shéhérazade: Overture
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Brahms – Symphony No. 2
Ravel was in his early twenties when he seized upon the idea of composing an opera on the theme of Shéhérazade. Some years earlier Paris had been in the throes of an infatuation with all things Russian: the works of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Mussorgsky were celebrated and Ravel had caught the bug.
Ravel however only got as far as the overture – this was to be his first orchestral work. It did not find favour with the critics of the day. The critics were right. Ravel almost threw the piece away and nowadays it is rarely played. This was the first performance by the Tonhalle Orchestra – ever! Years later Ravel went back to the theme and set some poems (by countryman Léon Leclère using the ludicrous pseudonym of Tristan Klingsor) to music and nowadays it is this song cycle which one associates with the name Shéhérazade and Ravel.
The overture, almost a miniature tone poem, is of some interest and has some charm; it clearly foreshadows Ravel’s sound world which he would go on to develop so successfully – orchestral colouration (in the form of percussion, celesta and harps) abounds, but melodies, sadly, do not. It’s the sort of work that, soon after hearing it, you have forgotten.
Lisa Batiashvili is the Tonhalle Orchestra’s “Artist in Residence” this season and the collaboration is proving very fruitful. Her performance of the Sibelius concerto was the most compelling I have heard in a very long time, indeed I had to think right back to Kyung Wha Chung in the 1970s – she took more risks than Batiashvili and accuracy had to suffer as a consequence. The sound of Batiashvili’s instrument, a 1739 Guarneri del Gesu, was utterly gorgeous, especially on the lower strings where she employed plenty of muscle. Bringuier’s accompaniment was exemplary, powerful when the soloist was “resting”, restrained to allow the soloist to be easily heard. Bringuier, linking Nordic grandeur with Gallic charm, showed a liking and aptitude for Sibelius – perhaps a symphonic cycle to come in a future season? Only towards the end of the fiery first movement did conductor and orchestra have difficulty keeping up with Batiashvili’s intense and frenetic pace.
The applause was the loudest I have heard for some time and we were duly rewarded with a witty encore from Batiashvili’s native Georgia, a piece entitled “Lale” by Sulkhan Tsintsadze (arranged by her father Tamas) – it was good to have an encore accompanied by the orchestra’s entire string section.
Brahms’ Second Symphony proved a resounding success. Ivo Gass, principal horn, proved to be the star turn in a number of the work’s movements and the conductor bounded up to him at the end to thank him warmly. The Adagio gave the cellos their chance to shine, the violas were splendid too and heavy brass suitably weighty. In the Allegretto grazioso the brace of oboes (Simon Fuchs and Kaspar Zimmermann) led the way in spirited fashion; the conductor was all smiles.
This was an impressive performance of a marvellous symphony. It was recorded for Swiss Radio and, a glitch or two apart, it was of recording quality. The orchestra (and conductor) had worked hard.
I spoke to the conductor right after the performance – he was signing his latest CD (of the Ravel piano concerto with Yuja Wang) in the Vestibule of the Tonhalle and said I had heard (and reviewed) the Philharmonia Orchestra just a few days ago in the same hall. I said the Tonhalle Orchestra had exceeded the Philharmonia’s exceptionally high standards. Much can be attributed to the warm relationship that he has forged with his “new” orchestra. He was chuffed.
This will be a candidate for my most enjoyed concert of the year (though I suspect John Eliot Gardiner’s Glagolitic Mass, coming soon, might pip it at the post).