When worlds converge, with Batiashvili and Lewis
The Celebrity Series of Boston offered two celebrities for the price of one Sunday afternoon in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, as a violinist and a pianist known for their individual accomplishments joined forces in a much-anticipated recital.
Lisa Batiashvili, when not starring in the big Romantic violin concertos with the world’s leading orchestras, has a history of seeking out peer pianists to perform recital repertoire with. Her latest collaborator, the Englishman Paul Lewis, has excited comment with his interpretations of Classical-era masters in recordings and in recent Boston appearances on the Celebrity series and with the BSO.
On the other hand, Sunday’s concert marked Batiashvili’s first appearance here in recital. The first sign that she wasn’t aiming for a star turn for herself was the choice of repertoire: chiefly works of Schubert and Beethoven, more Lewis’s home turf than hers.
And the performances bore that impression out. The chamber-music ideal of “playing as one” predominated, not only in matters of phrasing and rubato, but even in tone. Some composers (Brahms and Ravel among them) are known to have considered the sounds of violin and piano acoustically incompatible, but Batiashvili and Lewis seemed determined to bridge the gap.
Her pure tone (without a hint of bow noise) ranged from a silk thread to a full-bodied mezzo-soprano; his playing smoothed out the piano’s percussive edges even in forte passages, merging his tone with hers, at times creating the illusion of a single instrument with slightly different registers.
This seamless partnership offered interpretations of a high order, with every nuance and detail thoughtfully addressed and polished. And yet the entente cordiale came at a cost. One missed the headstrong Batiashvili of the concerto performances, and the highly individual, probing Lewis of the all-Schubert recital here two years ago. Those two could only hover nearby as their alter egos met and merged in the middle.
To be sure, pieces like the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Schubert’s last piano sonatas are weightier fare than the main works in Sunday’s recital: Schubert’s Sonata (Grand Duo) in A and Rondo in B minor, and Beethoven’s gentle Sonata in G, Op. 96. But would it be risking the wrath of the chamber-music gods to suggest that these smooth performances might have benefited from a touch of egotism on both sides? A little stress is good for the joints. Why present a celebrity duo if the artists have to shelve the very things that made them celebrities?
Still, the near-capacity audience at Jordan Hall came prepared to enjoy themselves, and these reliable performers gave them much to enjoy. The players mined gold in the A major Sonata, revealing it to be not a naïve early work but an example of the deceptive simplicity that Schubert’s genius so often came wrapped in.
Following an expertly turned first movement, the sonata’s Scherzo turned up the heat with volatile mood shifts and a trio that morphed from droll to tender. The Andantino was distinguished by intricate melodic interplay and the finale by skillful management of tempo between the dashing theme and languid episodes. Endings received special attention, so that they reverberated in the mind during the silence between movements.
This modest sonata might have been a good candidate for the home-music market of its day, but no publisher issued it until after Schubert’s death. The later B minor Rondo, on the other hand, made strong technical and interpretive demands on the players, and even immediate publication under the title Rondeau brilliant earned it more admiration than sales.
On Sunday, Batiashvili and Lewis seemed to find the score’s challenges liberating, as they eagerly investigated the twists and turns of the slow introduction and gave a spirited account of a fantasy-like piece that seemed to contain enough material for three conventional rondos.
After the intermission, as if to break free of the chamber-music ethos for a few moments, the two artists put aside the announced Bach duo sonata and instead took individual turns onstage. In Lewis’s deeply introspective performance of the Bach organ chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (arranged for piano by Busoni), subtly layered voices suggested organ registration.
Artful voicing also figured in Telemann’s polyphonic Fantasia No. 4 in D major for unaccompanied violin, as Batiashvili created the illusion of more than one instrument playing this charming little sonata in three micro-movements, ending with a lively gigue.
As the two artists doubtless knew, Beethoven composed his Op. 96 Sonata for an elegant French violinist who, the composer said, didn’t care for his usual “rushing and resounding” style, and so produced a piece much more tender and poetic in character than its immediate predecessor, the brilliant “Kreutzer” Sonata.
In their zeal not to rush or resound, Batiashvili and Lewis passed up many opportunities for expressive contrast, especially in the variations finale, and their performance emphasized nuance and fleeting moods instead. The violinist made her opening trill super-pianissimo, and sounded almost reluctant, playing a little behind the beat, for much of the first movement.
The Adagio espressivo was treated with great freedom as to tempo and reflective pauses, with an effect that may have seemed magical to some listeners and mystifying to others. The Scherzo tended to be soft-edged as well, but there was much pleasure to be had in the three-way interaction among the pianist’s left and right hands and the violin.
After so much sensitivity, one longed for a little more strut in the finale theme, along the lines of this sonata’s litter-mate, the “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. As it was, the remarkable extended adagio variation near the end sounded less like an inspired interruption than a continuation of what had gone before. But the players handled the work’s teasing coda with humor and spark, to the audience’s delight.
The enthusiastic applause brought the artists back for two encores, a hard-driving Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 2 in D minor and Kreisler’s sentimental Liebesleid,played with minimal schmaltz in the violin and subtle counterpoint in the piano, in one of the afternoon’s most unaffected, and affecting, moments.