United Kingdom Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Ravel: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 16.2.2016. (AS)
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Stravinsky – Jeu de cartes
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2
The Barbican’s advance booking publicity for this concert promised an event that would “crackle with energy, colour and potential” and gave details of a work by Stravinsky called “Jeu des cartes”, so that was not to the good. But there was another curious aspect to this first appearance in London by the Concertgebouw under Daniele Gatti. You might think that its programme should begin with some kind of brilliant showpiece to call attention to the qualities of the orchestra under its new music director. But instead the limelight was at once stolen by Lisa Batiashvili’s most beautiful playing of the unaccompanied statement that forms the beginning of the Prokofiev concerto, with the orchestra following on in quiet response. Throughout the movement Batiashvili’s warmth of tone and elegance of phrase were striking: the spikier aspects of Prokofiev’s composing style were quite subsumed by both soloist and orchestra, very much to advantage on this occasion, at least. Gatti’s beat seemed a little vague visually, though no doubt it had been clearer in rehearsal. In performance it seemed as if he was merely letting his wonderful players show off their outstanding artistry and skills: in the second movement he simply stopped conducting for a while after setting the initial tempo.
In this slow movement Batiashvili’s playing again had a lovely lyrical quality, to which the orchestra responded with its own beauty of sound. The pungent rhythms of the finale demand more overt virtuosity, and at the outset Batashvili was a little overcome by a too emphatic orchestral contribution. In fact, throughout the movement there was a certain battle for supremacy, with the soloist’s brilliant technique pitted rather too faintly on occasion against Gatti and his players, the conductor now busily pointing the music’s irregular rhythms.
Irregular rhythms are very much a feature of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, of course, and even in performances by the most skilled hands there are usually a few slight loose ends in the strings, and a burble or two from the brass as they contend with the composer’s complex demands. But of these two faults there was no aural sign in the Concertgebouw’s performance on this occasion: it wasn’t just playing of the highest virtuosity, but of the greatest assurance. These musicians seemed to have time to spare in projecting Stravinsky’s cool, nonchalant, witty musical images, and the light-footed quality they produced reminded this listener that here was music written for the dance theatre rather than the concert hall.
Though immaculately played, the beginning of the Ravel suite seemed a little less poetic than it can be, but soon the emotional temperature of this seductive music rose. The quality of the playing cannot easily be described in words; the usually hard Barbican acoustic was completely smothered in beautiful sounds. In this context could the solo flute play in anything other than in a heavenly manner during his long solo? No, it was as magical as anything one has ever heard. An energetic but not over-propelled dance provided the perfect conclusion to the concert.
On this evidence the Royal Concertgebouw maintains its status as one of the world’s greatest orchestras under Daniel Gatti’s new leadership.