Musical greatness without Sturm und Drang

Batiashvili and Lewis with the PCMS

4 minute read
A playful quality: Lisa Batiashvili (photo by Mat Hennek)
A playful quality: Lisa Batiashvili (photo by Mat Hennek)

It’s difficult to think of Schubert without his moods and Beethoven without his outbursts — so much of the music that touches us most deeply embodies the dark side, perturbation, melancholy. For music of the Romantic and Modern eras, such Sturm und Drang was the gateway to artistic greatness.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s recent concert, however, had no such darkness. The performance emphasized lyrical beauty over struggle, power, and tension, yet in its own way it achieved a measure of greatness and depth of feeling, filling the Perelman Theater with a concert hall grandeur that you don’t often hear in that space meant for “chamber” music. How did violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Paul Lewis achieve such an unexpected, almost contradictory effect?

Pleasant but challenging

First of all, the Schubert Violin Sonata in A Major, the Rondeau Brillant in B Minor, and the Beethoven Violin Sonata in G Major — while mostly pleasant in their affective tone — are complex and in some ways difficult to perform, generating challenges to the performers that always excite an audience. These works require a high level of playing to bring out their consistency and density without grandiosity and exaggeration. Batiashvili and Lewis transcended even these artistic requirements to instill a lively and energetic presence through their remarkable rapport and the sheer richness of their combined sound.

Batiashvili, born in Georgia, continues in the tradition of the great Russians Oistrakh, Milstein, and Kogan with her forthright and cogent expressivity, but here she added an exceptional fluidity and lyrical, at times even playful quality all her own. She gave a smooth legato flow to the melodic passages, and she wended her way through rapid sequences as if casually picking flowers. She also has a unique relationship to her instrument. It’s as if she is touching the violin intimately rather than trying to pull something out of it. In her hands, the instrument seemed to sing, to realize its own being rather than responding to a bow and fingers.

Pianist Lewis also has a subtle touch and was able to interact with Batiashvili in an equal partnership rather than accompanying her. His highly praised performances and recordings of all the Beethoven piano sonatas has given him the knowledge and experience that helped the duo to give what could be considered a definitive interpretation of the Beethoven violin sonata.

The Bach Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland is an organ prelude transcribed by Busoni for piano to acquaint his students with Bach. Only a few minutes long, it served here as a quiet, reflective interlude between the violin pieces. Yet even in this modest context, Lewis accomplished more than just a “good enough Bach” performance. He gave the piece a somber Nordic quality that contrasted with the other works, and, most importantly, he instilled a coherence that many performers don’t even appreciate in Bach, whose music is often executed and heard in a temporally linear manner without sufficient attention given to its overall architecture and form. But the great baroque composer had a remarkable ability to integrate all the components of the music into an organic whole. Lewis played as if this hymnlike statement consisted of a single extended phrase rather than a series of disparate elements, achieving a stunning effect of unity.

Flair and sparkle

Telemann’s prolific legacy of music has its own beauty, which at the time was favorably compared with Bach, although it certainly has not maintained that holy status since then. Interestingly, as a baroque composer borrowing from Italian and French influences, Telemann anticipated some of the developments that were later, in the hands of Haydn and Mozart, to be called “classical” music: the flow and the (relative) harmonic simplicity that brought the music into the courts and then concert halls. Much of the music during that transitional period has escaped the attention of all but the most devoted listeners.

Batiashvili gave flair and sparkle to Telemann’s Fantasie in D Major for Solo Violin, emphasizing the dance rhythm of the allegro (gigue) movement. She correctly perceived that playing Telemann in a hard-core baroque manner, as many do, deprives it of liveliness and grace. A sign of a great musician is her ability to take what could be a dull musical exercise and endow it with new life.

A feminist understanding can shed light on why Batiashvili was so successful at unlocking the link between greatness and sheer listening pleasure. The French feminist Hélène Cixous has used the term jouissance to refer to a type of pleasure that is especially experienced and expressed by women: “explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance . . . takes pleasure (jouit) in being limitless.” Certainly such a rich form of enjoyment can be manifest in great artistic creations and performance. The Romantic era assumption that greatness and sheer enjoyment are incompatible is a tiresome phallic masculine idea. As they say in South Philadelphia, “Fuggedaboutit.”

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Lisa Batiashvili, violin and Paul Lewis, piano. Schubert: Violin Sonata in A Major, Grand Duo and Rondeau Brillant in B Minor; Bach: Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, for solo piano; Telemann: Fantasie in D Major for Solo Violin; Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 96; Kreisler: Liebesleid. March 25, 2015. Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia.

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