Friday 16 February 2024

Batiashvili/BPO/Petrenko - Brahms, Szymanowski, and Strauss, 15 February 2024


Brahms: Tragic Overture in D minor, op.81
Symanowski: Violin Concerto no.1, op.35
Strauss: Symphonia Domestica, op.53

Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Image: Lena Laine

For me, the highlight of this concert from the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko was the performance of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, for which they were joined by the equally outstanding violinist Lisa Batiashvili. Almost any few bars – the sound and the direction it took – would have been enough to justify attendance; it was not, though, necessary to choose. Its opening, a fairyland in which orchestral children of Mendelssohn and Debussy took flight to the emergent strains of a silken violin line spun with longing and languor presaged what was to come, such interactions, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral the stuff on which dreams were made on—at quite a temperature. Whatever its twists and turns, there was no doubting the musical line and one’s compulsion to follow it. Metamorphoses magical, martial, and more proved gorgeously beyond good and evil in their phantasmagoria, form created before our ears. It seemed both old and new, all the while played as to the manner born, balances both perfectly projected yet constantly shifting. Fantasy became reality, or perhaps vice versa. 

Brahms’s Tragic Overture preceded it. Here I was somewhat more uncertain. It was tremendously played, of course, though perhaps driven a little hard at the beginning. (Such matters are mostly a matter of taste, yet even fate need not be quite so remorseless.) There was certainly contrast to come, not least in a charming, surprising echo of Schubert in onward tread before Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance reasserted itself. What I never quite grasped was how the tragic pageant hung together. 

In the second half came Strauss’s Symphonia domestica. Of all Strauss’s tone poems, even Aus Italien, it is the one I know least well. Indeed, I am not sure I can claim to know it in an emphatic sense at all; I do not think I had been to a live performance before this. I was therefore hoping for some sort of ‘eureka’ moment, or at least a shift in my response to a work that has somewhat baffled me on previous hearings. Alas, it was not to be on this occasion—and that is not necessarily any reflection on the performance.  There were times, especially earlier on, when I thought it was. It is not often that Strauss is bested for great washes of orchestral sound, yet after Szymanowski he was; precision and clarity in the opening were therefore all the more valuable by way of contrast. The composer’s antiromanticism was here strongly to the fore, as it was when the music, more strongly than I can recall, presaged the operatic Strauss of a decade or more hence: Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, even Intermezzo—which, in terms of subject matter, makes sense. Darker passages proved as ambiguous as the music at its more playful; the Mendelssohn quotation might almost have been filtered by Reger, save that it would surely have been the other way around. The sheer strangeness of Strauss’s tonal journey registered, though ultimately I am not sure I followed it, nor the work’s form (as opposed to mere structure) more generally. The ‘finale’ at times sounded intriguingly close to the enigmatic exuberance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written at more or less the same time, yet an element of failing, as it were, to conclude here seemed less part of the narrative than, well, an inability to conclude. I am doubtless missing something and have little doubt Mahler would have relished the Berliners’ virtuoso handling of Strauss’s counterpoint. (He conducted the  Viennese premiere in 1904.) Sometimes, though, one must wait until a piece comes knocking on the door—which, judging by the reaction accorded this performance, it already had for most of my fellow concert-goers.