Sublime Sibelius and Mahler from Batiashvili and the Philharmonia under Lahav Shani

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Mahler: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.12.2022. (JR)

Lahav Shani © Marco Borggreve

Sibelius – Violin Concerto, Op.47

Mahler – Symphony No.6

A packed Royal Festival Hall was witness to a sublime performance of the ever-popular Sibelius Violin Concerto. Lisa Batiashvili, on her Joseph Guarneri del Jesu from 1739, mesmerised the audience in the extremely quiet opening and the subsequent tender passages and wowed them with her technique in the fast sections. The final Allegro came over as the best movement, conductor Lahav Shani injecting an element of swagger into the orchestral accompaniment. Batiashvili never put a finger wrong in the long double-stopping passages. The orchestra’s violas, cellos and principal double bass stood out in the pulsations at the opening of the finale. Shani conducts without a baton, using his left hand as much as his right and he might, as a result, not to be so easy to follow, once or twice orchestra and soloist were not quite together. It turned out to be Sibelius’s birthday, so Batiashvili rewarded the rapturous applause for her superb performance with the arrangement by Jarkko Riihimäki for violin and orchestra of the traditional Evening Song; it was most affecting and ended with an impressive display of harmonics.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is sometimes nicknamed Tragic (though this word does not appear on the score and was not sanctioned by the composer) and this performance emphasised the brutal, even nihilistic nature of the work. Despite the fact that Mahler had just married Alma and their first child had been born, the work has surprisingly dark undertones throughout. Shani brought out that darkness at every turn, and the Philharmonia supported him dutifully.

The huge orchestra launched into their terrifying march at the outset of the work and we were immediately taken by the bloom and precision of the entire string section (second violins as strong as the firsts) and the characterful woodwind, particularly the clarinet of Mark van de Wiel and the creamy oboe: the A team were out in force. The clarinet section frequently lifted their bells to add to the impact. Top trumpet notes were secure and the nine horns (the majority women) blended nicely. Shani kept up the drive and showed a sure hand with the score; Shani galvanised his forces to a frenzy – it was both terrifying and terrific.  My only quibble was that the offstage cowbells were well-nigh inaudible.

Shani chose to play the Scherzo second. There seems to be no guidance from the composer on this, he dithered with a decision. The growling tuba and the shrieking piccolos made their presence felt. The slow movement then followed, with silky strings, with the onstage cowbells still much too reticent for my liking. Principal horn Laurence Davies provided a sublime ending to the movement.

The fast and furious final movement confirmed Shani as a Mahler conductor of distinction. The highlights (three cymbal clashes) and two hammer blows (thankfully not three) were well executed, though the lifting of the huge hammer caused visible consternation for many in the front row of the choir seats, to the amusement of many in the audience. Perhaps, with hindsight, a placing of the hammer further to the front stage as in some performances would have been preferable; it certainly aids the visual impact.

The Philharmonia Orchestra confirmed their top quality with this final major concert as we head into the Christmas break.

John Rhodes

2 thoughts on “Sublime Sibelius and Mahler from Batiashvili and the Philharmonia under Lahav Shani”

  1. Very beautifully described and a pleasure to read.
    I agree that placing the hammer ‘further to the front stage’ might have saved some members of the audience having to switch concentration as to where it was.

  2. ‘Galvanised his forces to a frenzy’ is just not what I want in this movement.
    Too sensational for me.
    Far better and less frantic à la Bernstein is Horenstein with a perfect ability to blend the disparate sections in Movement I to my great satisfaction. Otherwise competent but prosaic. Not enough rehearsal so typical in London. This young man needs to calm down and get a sense of perspective. Time will tell.


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