A sense of timelessness

Lisa Batiashvili’s fifth recording for Deutsche Grammophon is devoted to music by Sergey Prokofiev. Visions of Prokofiev, due for release in February 2018, bridges the gap between serious and popular music of the early 20th century. The album features Prokofiev’s two violin concertos – completed in 1917 and 1935 respectively and long since established as classics of the 20th-century repertoire – alongside three much-loved excerpts from the composer’s stage works in arrangements by Lisa’s father, Tamás Batiashvili. The violinist is accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Between February and August 2018 Lisa Batiashvili is scheduled to perform Prokofiev’s Second Concerto in cities including Rome, Sydney, New York, Vienna and Madrid.

In Soviet-era Georgia, Prokofiev was considered one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. As well as being widely performed throughout the country, his music was on the curriculum, and therefore forms part of Lisa Batiashvili’s earliest musical memories. And when she moved to Germany in 1991, it was Prokofiev’s music that shaped her as an artist. In her earliest days at the Hamburg Musikhochschule, for example, Mark Lubotsky set her to work on the First Violin Concerto. (He himself had studied it with the Soviet violinist David Oistrakh.) Although Batiashvili, then twelve years old, did not immediately grasp the powerful gestures and suggestive theatricality of Prokofiev’s early work, she did familiarise herself with the concerto. As her career developed, she began programming it on significant occasions – now a piece whose style she could fully identify with, it more or less became her calling card.

“Although 15 or 20 years ago, the First Concerto wasn’t as popular as it is today, I played it in major competitions and made a number of debuts with it”, says Batiashvili. “It has a tenderness and dreamy detachment about it that I find hugely fascinating. Prokofiev clearly has endless ways of conveying the fragility and vulnerability of human experience. And yet everything is so close to being expressed in a genuinely Classical manner. The concerto’s closeness to ballet and the theatre is, of course, a result of Prokofiev’s gift for defining individual roles and characters with the most succinct and beautiful musical themes.”

There are palpable, if informal, connections between the two concertos and the three perennial favourites from Prokofiev’s ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella and his early opera The Love for Three Oranges, here heard in arrangements created by the violinist’s father, Tamás Batiashvili. “The first time you hear it, the Second Concerto might seem rather more conventional and calculated than the First. But the wonderful second-movement cantilena, for example, is a close relation of the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet. What Prokofiev does in the ballets is directly reflected in the character of the concertos. Conversely, the best numbers from the ballets are so rounded that they work even when they’re removed from their theatrical context.”

Above all, however, as Batiashvili explains, Prokofiev is a composer “who truly combines East and West, and whose music therefore has a sense of timelessness”. The formal language of the German instrumental tradition, a feeling for colour nurtured by French Impressionism, and, finally, that combination of intense melodiousness and thrilling rhythmic energy typical of Russian composers since the mid-19th century all come together in Prokofiev – naturally enough, perhaps, given his life story. In 1917, the year of the October Revolution, he left Russia to seek his fortune in the USA and Western Europe. By 1936 he had become an international celebrity, but the economic situation in the West had worsened dramatically and he was overwhelmed by homesickness, so returned to the Soviet Union. There he became a prominent servant of an authoritarian system, acclaimed and reprimanded by turns. As fate would have it, he died on the same day as Stalin in March 1953.

Lisa Batiashvili, herself an émigré, is another musician who naturally combines “Eastern” and “Western” influences. Although she still has strong ties to her native Georgia, and regularly returns to Tblisi to visit friends and relatives and give concerts for her compatriots, she regards herself as a European. She has been living in Munich for some time, her husband is French, and her children were born in Germany. She is no longer forced to choose one country or way of life over another – her cultural influences can coexist and complement each other.

The same is true of her artistic life. Like many instrumentalists trained in the Russian tradition, Batiashvili is fundamentally a Classicist. Clear proportions, elegant lines, the beauty of restraint and as seamless and natural a development as possible are more important to her than virtuosic excess or striving after effect for its own sake. These are qualities shared by the players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, making them the perfect partners for Batiashvili on this recording. The members of the COE, among the finest musicians in the world today, represent many different nationalities – a positive example of European pluralism. They come together every year for a limited period to work on chosen projects with leading conductors, such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with whom they have enjoyed a close working relationship for some time now. Lisa Batiashvili has also played many an important concert under Nézet-Séguin’s baton and is delighted to have had the opportunity of working with him again here. “His way of making music is so natural, and at the same time so moving,” she explains, “that you feel as though you’re dealing with a force of nature. As far as I’m concerned, this orchestra, Yannick and I together make an ideal artistic team.”