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Secret Love Letters
César Franck (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major FWV8
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No 1, Op 35
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Poème, Op 25
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Beau Soir (arr. Heifetz)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Giorgi Gigashvili (piano: Franck), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano: Debussy)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Szymanowski, Chausson)
rec. 2022, Academy of Music, Kimmel Cultural Campus, Philadelphia; Teldex Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

This album, and certainly this recording of the Szymanowski first violin concerto, ought to come with a safety warning that it might cause your speakers to combust so incandescent is the music making. Szymanowski’s lush orchestral writing has always cried out for the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, in Nézet-Séguin, that august ensemble have found a steward clearly in love with that sound. Soaring above them, Batiashvili seems at times almost in a ecstatic trance – it is heady stuff indeed!

It is a mystery, given the endless recycling of the same six or so big violin concertos that this Szymanowski concerto isn’t better known. It has big tunes, passion to spare, and it strokes rather than batters the ear. I had the feeling listening to this recording that maybe its moment had finally come. History shows that some works need a particularly brilliant or insightful recording or performance to make them come alive for listeners. Just think of what Glenn Gould’s mad spree did for the Goldberg Variations. I mean no disrespect to previous recordings of this concerto but Batiashvili and Nézet-Séguin make them seem rather like taking tea with your elderly maiden aunt by comparison.

Everything is set to maximum. Maximum wildness balanced by maximum tenderness, maximum colour against maximum amplitude in the big climaxes (and my goodness the DG recording takes it all in its stride). Everyone involved squeezes every last drop of music from every note. Batiashvili’s first entry out of the rather jokey orchestral introduction is like the awe-inspiring arrival of a fairy queen amongst her subjects but the ferocity with which she attacks the subsequent faster music demonstrates that she isn’t a queen to be crossed. I could go on. And on.

The record opens with staid old César Franck’s violin sonata – or so I thought. Right from the first note it is already clear that Batiashvili is in dazzling form. Has Franck always been this sexy and I have missed it? The second movement positively smoulders under Batiashvilli’s bow. When she isn’t soaring dreamily into the ether that is. Giorgi Gigashvili is a suitable partner in crime, matching the perfumed, hothouse atmosphere generated by the violinist. I was very taken with the rounded piano sound afforded him by the DG engineers, not something that can be taken for granted in recordings of the piano when paired with the violin. There is an argument for a more insouciant, more Gallic perhaps, rendition of this music but, speaking for myself, I loved this ferocious, almost iconoclastic tear through the score.

Last year I reviewed Hilary Hahn (also on DG) in the Chausson Poème and expressed admiration for her alternative, rather chaste view of it. Predictably, Batiashvili takes a polar opposite approach that oozes sensuality. I say sensuality because this is no crass sexpot take on the music. Her playing is exquisitely tender and the variety of tone she deploys is like the colours of the rainbow. That said, when she needs to dig in, she pours out volcanic flows of molten tone. As in the Szymanowski, Batiashvili and Nézet-Séguin are on the same wavelength. This is Hollywood music making and it left me in raptures.

It was only in the shortest piece included, the arrangement for violin of the Debussy song Beau Soir, that I felt things were over-egged somewhat. There is passion in this music but it is of a more rarified and elusive nature than we get here. It is still beautifully played but compare it with a recent recording by Coco Tomita and there is just that extra dimension of otherworldly poise in Tomita’s exquisite account. If on the other hand, you are happy to wallow in more top-notch fiddle playing then this most minor of criticisms melts away.

This gloriously indulgent disc elbows its way insistently to the head of my list of Recordings of the Year. The Szymanowski alone deserves to win awards.

David McDade

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