Batiashvili ignites probing Philadelphia Orchestra program
It seemed almost too easy a choice for the Philadelphia Orchestra to open its Carnegie Hall program on Friday with Barber’s Adagio for Strings. This orchestra continues to pride itself on its rich string sound, and they’re intent on showing it off whenever they come to New York.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his crew, though, gave the piece much more than the cursory opening-bonbon treatment. Right from its dreamy, gossamer opening this was an interpretation of heartbreaking sensitivity, played with a tight mesh, overflowing with deep and varied colors. At times they pressed the sound almost to the point of breaking, creating an intensely searing tone. Nézet-Séguin is noted for his passionate readings, but his attention to detail is also remarkable, as he demonstrated here with precisely contoured lines.
The program’s closer, Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony, is more of a challenge, both for orchestra and conductor. As dense as it is popular, the Ninth can be an easy piece in which to get lost. In the opening movement, the balance was not quite right Friday, resulting in some moments of generalized bluster. Still, in the midst of the turmoil there was a sense of huge mass, and a character that was stoic but not cold. Constant energy flowed through the music, lingering after the final chord dissipated.
The Scherzo was grim—dark even in its moments of humor, the mad ticking that recurs throughout it was relentless, giving way to the even more relentless, maddening stomping. Played with broad strokes, those repeated blasts had the unstoppable feel of a freight train bearing down.
The final Adagio beamed with light, following the dark, almost suffocating Scherzo with clarity and expansiveness. Long bow strokes high up the fingerboard often brought the strings to a roaring, burning warmth over which the horns blared triumphantly. Even at a decidedly stately tempo, this Adagio thrilled.
Nézet-Séguin is of course one of a crop of talented young conductors, and his youth often manifests itself as fiery impetuosity. In this difficult and cerebral work, however, he demonstrated profound maturity to go along with his visceral passion. Navigating this symphony is a feat in itself, so long are its trains of thought, but there was always clear purpose in Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, keeping the listener grounded and oriented. The Adagio had a finality that ended in perfectly natural calm, and with a feeling that the three movements constitute a perfect whole.
Even so, the concert’s outstanding item was the concerto that closed the first half. No violinist on earth is currently playing the instrument better than Lisa Batiashvili. In her performance of Bartók’s First Violin Concerto Friday she was again utterly fearless, speaking through her instrument with supreme confidence.
Bartók’s concerto is not easy listening—its lines seem disjointed and opaque on the page, and often in performance, as well. When Batiashvili floated into the opening solo, she did so with such coherence, such persuasiveness, and such poignancy that you just had to weep. The wandering of the violin part was anything but aimless—her understanding of it was so clear, a listener would have no choice but to follow her through all of the unexpected turns.
She can produce a remarkably pristine tone, and most of the first movement was spent in that vein, with colors varying from smoldering to shimmering. But it was in the second movement (there are only two in this relatively brief concerto) that she showed what really sets her apart from other violinists. Where the Andante is mysterious, the Allegro giocoso is merciless, its calmer sections seeming more restive than restful, and making the claws seem sharper by contrast. The movement’s technical demands are considerable and they have to be matched with unrelenting fury. As she so often has, Batiashvili demonstrated that she has a wild virtuosic spirit, raging through her flawless technique without ever endangering it.