DANCE TO FREEDOM
· New biopic from Oscar nominees Ralph Fiennes and David Hare probes intense drama of ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union
· The White Crow features captivating score by British composer Ilan Eshkeri
· Deutsche Grammophon soundtrack album places solo spotlight on acclaimed violinist Lisa Batiashvili
Half-hearted concessions to freedom of expression were not enough to hold Rudolf Nureyev in the Soviet Union. The young dancer, a superstar soloist of the Kirov Ballet, caused an international sensation when he became the first Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War. The White Crow, a new film directed by Ralph Fiennes, charts Nureyev’s journey from childhood poverty in Siberia and meteoric rise as a principal dancer to the decisive moment of his defection in June 1961 at Le Bourget airport in Paris. The story’s personal and political drama surges through Sir David Hare’s screenplay and is intensified by the austere beauty of Ilan Eshkeri’s original score. Deutsche Grammophon is set to release the soundtrack album on 22 March 2019 to coincide with the movie’s international release.
Russophile Fiennes, who also plays Nureyev’s mentor Alexander Pushkin (in Russian) in The White Crow, became fascinated by the dancer’s drive and dynamism almost twenty years ago when he first read Julie Kavanagh’s Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, a book whose cinematic potential immediately captured his imagination. When he finally came to direct the film, his renowned attention to detail was valued by all his collaborators, including contemporary British composer Eshkeri, who is best known for his soundtracks to The Young Victoria and Still Alice. He created the music for Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut as film-maker, and for the actor-director’s critically acclaimed second film, The Invisible Woman, and here too worked closely with Fiennes in writing a score that expresses the complex and conflicting emotions involved in Nureyev’s story. Deutsche Grammophon artist Lisa Batiashvili plays a prominent off-screen role as soloist in the score to The White Crow. The Georgian-born German violinist, raised under the Soviet system during its final years before moving with her family from war-torn Tbilisi to Munich in 1991, plays the beautiful melody of the “White Crow”, which begins as the Entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, an intimate solo for the Prince brought back into fashion by Nureyev, and is then transformed into a full-scale piece by Eshkeri that conveys the catharsis and freedom of the dancer’s defection. Batiashvili also performs all the other key melodies in Eshkeri’s score.
Her discography for the Yellow Label already includes majestic readings of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann, and of Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos Nos.1 & 2 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Her recording of the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, made in partnership with Daniel Barenboim, was described by BBC Music Magazine simply as “Two greats, performed by two greats”. She was named Instrumentalist of the Year in 2015 by Musical America. After an acclaimed 2017-18 residency with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and having previously been Artist in Residence with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Batiashvili is currently enjoying a varied year as Artist in Residence with the Münchner Konzertdirektion Hörtnagel. This summer is her first as Artistic Director of Audi Sommerkonzerte, Ingolstadt.
“I think [Nureyev] was highly individual, ” said Ralph Fiennes before a screening of The White Crow at last October’s London Film Festival. “ He had a real sense of how things can be pushed further, a true artistic spirit, which is to break down or question the received wisdom or the received opinion, to challenge. But also he was trained in a very precise ballet tradition, the [Russian] imperial ballet tradition that the Soviet regime had co-opted for itself. He was a ferocious and difficult, contradictory man, who provokes different responses in people, but I love that. For me, he’s a character rich in his fire to realise himself.”
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.”