Lisa Batiashvili’s virtuosity makes Berg’s Violin Concerto take flight in Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Berg & Brahms: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 17.1.2020. (CR)

Lisa Batiashvili (c) Sammy Hart

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 ‘Unfinished’

Berg – Violin Concerto

Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op. 98

In their first concert of 2020, so soon after the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert, it was canny programming by the Oxford Philharmonic to feature a quite different sort of music written in that city, marked by a deathly and fateful character.

Commentators have speculated whether Schubert left his Symphony No.8 unfinished because of the recent trauma of his discovering that he had been infected with syphilis; on the other hand, there was nothing unusual in his leaving major works in a fragmentary state. But the two movement torso is clearly imbued with a greater and more personal depth of feeling than its symphonic forbears by the composer. Marios Papadopoulos took the first movement in a leisurely, even stately, manner, correctly observing its Allegro moderato marking. The very opening theme in the cellos and double basses was austere and declined to press on expectantly, which need not have been a problem, but the orchestra then tended to take up the rest of the movement without probing its troubled music to the utmost. Antiphonal strings created a finely integrated texture, however, with the little insistent quaver motif in the lower strings during the first subject impelling the movement’s rhythmic momentum from within the orchestra rather than imposed from its side. A comparative grandeur of vision was evident in the long-breathed build-up to the climax at the centre, with tremolandi and the strings’ melody spun out expansively in a proto-Brucknerian fashion.

Within the context of its basic overall tempo, the second movement bore more of a sense of forward motion than the first although, admittedly, Andante con moto is Schubert’s direction. With little vibrato used, the lyrical first section sounded a touch foursquare, though the second subject was more sublimely still (ironically, given the unsettled syncopated accompaniment of the strings) with the serenely floated melody by the clarinet here. The questioning slow descent of the strings’ arpeggio in the closing passage gestured towards another, late, Viennese symphonist, this time Mahler, for instance with the sighing, expiring strings at the end of his Ninth (another work which – by design in this case – ends with a slow movement) lending an air of resignation and finality to this performance.

A seemingly woozy opening, with not quite unanimous clarinet and harp, opened Berg’s regretful and mournful Violin Concerto, written ‘to the memory of an angel’, that is, Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter and Alma Gropius (the latter, once Frau Mahler of course). Lisa Batiashvili’s entry on the violin set the movement on a more deliberative tack, even as she seemed to explore and ruminate on the solo part, as though not taking for granted that its initial sequence of notes are the fundamental tones of the violin’s open strings but discovering them for the first time. Subsequently her playing took flight, like a more chromatic and Modernist type of Lark Ascending, with meandering and deathly woodwind behind it, almost snarling; and the dance-like folksong – otherwise apparently providing an influx of vitality – was subdued and deflated, ashen in hue, though finally working up in a frenetic rush to the end of the concerto’s first half.

The drawn-out dissonance which launched the concerto’s concluding second movement or section (harking back to the finale of either Mahler’s Sixth or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonies, or both) heralded a strenuous, struggling course through the music, convincingly navigated by the Oxford Philharmonic, and Batiashvili digging into the strings of her instrument to create a heaving effect. Again, though, the violin gradually brought matters under control with the lightened mood of the solo line in which Batiashvili evinced a sustained, mellow glow whilst anticipating the Bach Chorale (‘Es ist genug’) that finally takes over the music in its final, transcendental resolution. Papadopoulos carefully melded the literal quotations from the chorale into the texture of the composition so that its tonal phrases did not register as quite so strange or alien from Berg’s overall serialist conception.

A violin concerto usually prompts the soloist into giving an extract from one of Bach’s solo Sonatas or Partitas as an encore. Sometimes it is an unnecessary, or a mere gratuitous ornament, but for once, coming after the Chorale, in this case Batiashvili’s gently throbbing account of the Andante from the A minor Sonata providing a warmly consoling coda to this part of the programme, as though reclaiming some of the life which ebbed away at the end of the concerto.

On the whole the Oxford Philharmonic’s performance of Brahms’s highly emotionally intricate and overpowering final symphony was cogent. It took the music in the right serious vein, rather than try to leaven it and so daring to trivialise it, to the point that sometimes its progress felt a little stolid, rather than taking off with sufficient momentum, or the very opening being quite airy enough to sound as though it is borne on a wavy, breezy sea. The second movement trod a generally more purposeful course with, like the first, some phrases shaped with commanding power and drive, others a touch forced.

Undoubtedly, however, the brass made a notable impression with the clarity and precision of its playing, not least in the bittersweet melody of the horns which open the Andante moderato. Where the ebullient scherzo third movement combined sparkle and power, the passacaglia finale was more fearsome still, with its assertive attack on the first statement of the theme, followed by almost rebarbative pizzicato strings in the first variation. The following sequence assumed an ineluctable course, not letting up any tension during the quieter major key sections in the middle; in fact the gently pulsing horns in the eleventh and twelfth variations could have drawn back more (Brahms does mark their chords dolce) so as not to swamp the reduced orchestra playing at that point. But the assured and confident approach through the coda made for a rightly devastating conclusion.

Curtis Rogers

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