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A bit too expansive, but what tone: Batiashvili.

Fire and Ice
By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Conducted by Charles Dutoit

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 5

At some point, a composer such as Sibelius has to ask himself, “Am I making the violin part of this concerto purposely difficult just so the soloist can dazzle an audience, or are all these pyrotechnics germane to the piece?” And he thinks about it, and answers his own question: “Oh, what the hell—it sounds great, let’s do it.”

In truth, Jean Sibelius expended a lot of time and revision on his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 1904 and was withdrawn and revised immediately afterward. But it wasn’t until the electrifying Heifetz recording of 1935 that the piece began its swift popularity ascent—with claims of being the most-performed violin concerto of the 20th century.

Its difficulty has made it a test piece for fiddlers, and it’s a centerpiece of an international violin competition held every five years in Helsinki—a competition in which Lisa Batiashvili took second prize in 1995, when she was 16.

That was just a year after Gidon Kremer played the concerto during an August concert at SPAC, and Batiashvili’s playing last week reminded me very much of that experience. Like Kremer, this young violinist has a sense of control that assures you that she’s taking charge of the technical challenges.

But not without an understanding of the poetry of the piece. In these days of so much virtuosic accomplishment, that may be where the greatest challenge lies. This concerto has the potential for great elasticity, but I prefer it in tempo as much as possible, and thus found Batiashvili’s interpretation somewhat on the expansive side.

Yet I marveled at her beautiful tone and clean lines, not to mention the excellent rapport with conductor Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dutoit and Batiashvili partnered in this piece only a few days earlier at Tanglewood, so they’ve already road-tested the relationship.

The concert as a whole offered a wealth of orchestral showpieces. The Sibelius concerto may seem like all ice after the fire of Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, but it still demands a high level of skill. The brief Ravel work, which opened the program, blooms with wave after wave of gorgeous sound over infectious rhythms, and instantly reminded us why it’s a privilege to have this brilliant orchestra in our midst summer after summer.

Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, (aka “From the New World”), comprised the second half of the program. As well as we may know the work, a live performance offers a more nuanced understanding. The self- effacing Dvorák was a genius at orchestration, and captured his native Bohemia’s strong musical identity in every aspect of his work. Turning that talent on the United States, which he visited in the 1890s, he turned out a more American- sounding work than his American-born coevals ever dared to produce—but then Dvorák wasn’t a racist snob, and thus was freer to celebrate the music he heard while traveling around this country.

Heard after the French-Spanish and Finnish sounds that began the concert, it asserts its Bohemian-American personality even more firmly, and was, as expected, nicely sculpted by Dutoit.

And what a treat to hear the Philadelphia forces wail with the piece—especially the brass, who have a field day throughout. The well-known largo, a lullaby that has been refigured for every possible combination of instruments since it was written, was especially well rendered, and the furiant finale finished the evening in a blaze of orchestral fireworks.

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