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S & H Recital Review

Debussy, Prokofiev, Brahms Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin); Steven Osborne (piano). Wigmore Hall, June 4th, 2003 (CC)

Georgian violinist Elisabeth Batiashvili is building up an enviable reputation for herself, and her collaboration with the ever-musical Steven Osborne is clearly a fruitful one. No punches pulled in the programme here; instead the audience was treated to three major works by three major composers. Short timing, certainly, but in terms of sheer demands on musicality, this was heavy going.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor (1916/7) was his last work and, as a representative of late Debussy, has an elusive streak to it which is notoriously difficult to capture. This makes it even trickier as the very first piece in a recital programme, yet Batiashvili and Osborne went straight to the heart of the matter. The only signs of any type of easing-in were some moments of hardening of Batiashvili’s tone in forte, but that aside her sound was in general very beautiful (she plays the 1709 Engleman Stradivarius). Her technique was quite remarkable, as was Osborne’s, whose big sound and beautiful weighting of sonorities was particularly praiseworthy (he also played the piano part in the capricious ‘Intermède’ as if it was first cousin to the ‘Minstrels’ Prélude). An uncompromising beginning, then, which forced the audience into deep and respectful concentration (the standard of performance demanded nothing less).

Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 80 (1938-46), a work dedicated to David Oistrakh, is no less serious. The rapport that had been so aurally clear between Batiashvili and Osborne in the Debussy transformed into true telepathy here. What was perhaps most noteworthy about this performance was its ability to follow Prokofiev’s shifting moods in such a chameleon fashion. Thus, Osborne’s ominous opening tread set the scene for Batiashvili’s deep and throaty entrance; but the delicate passages were no less remarkable for the purity of Osborne’s chords against Batiashvili’s ghostly scales. For the Allegro brusco, Osborne unleashed an impressive depth of sound for this manifestation of Prokofiev’s relentless side (the thought crossed my mind – strongly – that Osborne should be turning his attention to Prokofiev’s solo piano sonatas sooner rather than later). This movement formed the perfect contrast to the Prokofievian peace of the Andante, itself a foil for the out-and-out virtuosity of the Alegrissimo finale.

Only something as meaty as the Brahms D minor Sonata could counterbalance a first half such as this, and the programming worked perfectly. The gritty determination of the youth of both players coupled with interpretative maturity beyond their years meant that they had the tools to imbue the very opening with a pure, simple energy: this was the beginning of a long emotional journey. Osborne kept the textures clean and clear (as he did throughout – no easy matter where the Brahms violin sonatas are concerned). Although the Adagio was highly expressive (Batiashvili’s deep tone coming once more to the fore), the Scherzo displayed an astonishingly light touch from both players, passages positively tumbling over one another, a testament to their youthful spirit. All of the first three movements seemed to lead inevitably to the eruption of sheer power that was the finale, the sound as large and impressive as one could desire.

This concert was recorded by Radio 3 for broadcast on June 19.

Colin Clarke

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