sun 29/01/2023

Batiashvili, Philharmonia, Shani, RFH review - Nordic mystery, Alpine tragedy | reviews, news & interviews

Batiashvili, Philharmonia, Shani, RFH review - Nordic mystery, Alpine tragedy

Batiashvili, Philharmonia, Shani, RFH review - Nordic mystery, Alpine tragedy

Lyric Sibelius and epic Mahler make a charismatic odd couple

Light against darkness: Lisa BatiashviliSammy Hart

Sibelius and Mahler so often figure as the irreconcilable chalk and cheese of turn-of-the-century orchestral writing that it can be a salutary experience to hear them together on one bill.

For sure, the Finn – whose Violin Concerto Lisa Batiashvili played at the Royal Festival Hall last night – could never have conceived anything like the ecstatic, catastrophic epic of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which the Philharmonia under Lahav Shani brought home in grand style during this concert’s prolonged second half.

Yet both partners in this odd coupling of works written within the same few years (1903-05) reveal a traditional harmonic language that strains at its seams while never quite splitting apart: even Mahler’s wild journey sticks to a classical four-movement path with one anchoring key. Although, at the close, the pairing still felt curious – as the grandiose torments of the Sixth will eclipse any rival offering – you could hear why these alien coevals might sometimes belong on the same page. 

Listen to recordings of the Sibelius concerto, and you may forget the sheer high-wire exposure of the soloist for much of the work. Live, Batiashvili joined her always-astonishing prowess and finesse with an intimate sense of quest and risk, as her high, lonely melodies set off into a landscape of orchestral sound where shocks and ambushes always lurk. Shani, a protégé of Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim who now directs the Israel Philharmonic as the long-serving Mehta’s successor (pictured below by Marco Borggreve), filled in a rich but not attention-seeking backdrop with the Philharmonia. He showcased full, rounded string tones and some atmospherically Nordic forest darkness in the woods and brass. Meanwhile, Batiashvili sailed through the exacting technical demands of the violin part – heroic double-stopping, leaping octaves, spiccato bowing and all – not as a chilly display of virtuosity but as stages on some mysterious private journey. Airy and silvered at the top, but with a lustrous warmth to her overall tone, the Georgian-born German let us hear the solo part as the violin’s knotty dialogue with itself, its lighter and darker voices striving for supremacy. 

Her adagio had a gorgeous, melancholic glow and sheen, finely shaped and paced. Shani’s tempi opened plenty of space for wistful reflection even if, at moments, the sheer heft of the Philharmonia sound could have been dialled back a bit. But the crunch and bite of the motif that kicks off the final rondo signalled the violinist’s eventual triumph. Skittish, acrobatic, even cheeky, Batiashvili danced through the movement’s bravura passagework as Shani’s orchestra found a complementary swing and swagger to offset the soloist’s pirouettes. Perhaps the danse macabre touches of Sibelius’s finale promised a foretaste of the Mahlerian apocalypse to come, although Batiashvili’s charming encore of a Finnish folk-song supplied a coda marked by simple tenderness.

Famously, Mahler threw not just the kitchen sink into the Sixth but the toolshed as well, with those notorious – literal – hammer blows that crush hope in his remorseless finale. Shani, though, grasped that a one-note “tragic” reading of the 80-minute voyage into darkness will diminish its impact. He let the many droll, sweet and lyrical interludes bloom, while always keeping his baton-free fingers on the pulse of Mahler’s implacable march into disaster. The demonic tread of the opening allegro felt properly energico but not over-strenuous: a slow build made for a scarier climax. 

Shani proved a vigilant general, alert to each corner of his vast orchestral battlefield, from powerhouse basses deep on the left via the massed percussion artillery (star timpanist Antoine Siguré in the front rank) to unearthly celeste, growling trombones and Peter Smith’s compellingly flavoured tuba, far off on the right. Concert-master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay led a lush, soaring affirmation of the string theme that tries to counter the long march towards the abyss, while Laurence Davies and his mellow horns helped blend the contradictory motifs of desire and despair. Cowbells lured us into Mahler’s Alpine meadow dreamland, but Shani’s palette remained dark: there were goblins in those hills. Shani placed the scherzo second, as is usual these days. That order intensifies the accumulating dread of the first movement while inflecting it with bitter, sardonic ironies. The brass of the Philharmonia (pictured above by Katherine Leedale) menaced, the woodwinds (Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet and Timothy Rundle’s oboe especially) pleaded, cried and squawked, while Shani still conveyed the frail order which underlies this great sonic unravelling. As we danced towards hell, the leader serenely plays lone fiddler to ease our panic on the way – but Shani effectively pinpointed the instrumental shrieks, growls or thumps of pain, in woods, brass and timpani, that overshadow the mood.

A conductor must decide how far to let the song-like andante of the third movement stand alone, as a self-sufficient glimpse of bliss amid the surrounding chaos and terror. In Shani’s hands, the wordless aria unfolded as a blessed but never-quite-secure relief. The lush ballast of the Philharmonia strings supported liquid horns and flutes. Shani’s leisurely approach highlighted the movement's plush, golden textures. But our spell of respite ended soon enough as searing violins, harps and tuba tipped us into the maelstrom of the finale. 

Now, as panic rose, Shani accented each unnerving detail – above all, the crunchy brass chorale. This fine definition perhaps came at a cost of general depth of sound. No matter: the first hammer-blow shocked as it should, distinctive voices – oboe, horn, cellos – cut through the enveloping breakdown, and the march into annihilation thrilled and terrified at once. With some resplendent brass playing to herald a grim farewell, we closed with a feeling of utter cataclysm both courted, and controlled. Treat this shattering movement simply as broad-brush melodrama and it may flag or blur; Shani kept his grasp of the stricken landscape clear, and his sound-world lucid and transparent, if not quite overwhelming. This was Mahler’s “tragic” fatalism with a human face, its individual pockets of resistance never wholly submerged in the flood. 

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