Violinist.com interview with Lisa Batiashvili: Shostakovich Violin Concerto

March 18, 2011, 9:48 AM ·

The first movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 pours forth like water, smooth and unhesitating around every corner, pooling here and there along the way. In the stillness of those pools are reflections; stirred up they become distortions.

So begins the epic journey that is Dmitri Shostakovich's first violin concerto, written in 1948 under the extreme oppression and persecution by the Soviet government, which in the same year denounced the composer and banned most of his works. The concerto, dedicated to Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, was not performed publicly until 1955.

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who was born in Soviet Georgia in the 1970s, brings a native intuition and violinistic mastery to this work in her recently-released Deutsche Grammophon recording with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

Lisa Batiashvili
Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers

It's a recording that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. I'd just settled with the uneasy tranquility of the first movement when the second movement hit me with a jolt, suddenly sending me for an exhausting ride on a fast-moving vehicle with three different-sized wheels, and I suspect a drunk driver. The orchestra is a wild circus, veering and careening. It spins and spins out of control, like one of those Russian dancers, just barely keeping its balance. By contrast, the Passacaglia trudges soberly on two feet. It is sad, deeply homesick – the violin weeps over the plodding drumbeat of the orchestra. It's home without solace, emptied of its comforts, its religion, its culture. It dies, dies, comes to a stop. Then the violin enters alone, for the cadenza, beginning with a quiet persistence that grows to loud insistence. It is powerful and intense – protracted anxiety, panting behind the door as the police knock, building to sheer panic, running headlong into the maniacal last movement.

Clearly, this is a recording that works. Lisa lived Soviet Georgia until she was 11, moving to Munich, where she studied and lived for 15 years. More recently, she moved to France with her husband and two children, ages two and six.

The recording also includes other works by Soviet emigres: "V & V" by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt and "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninov. On the lighter side is an arrangement of Shostakovich's "Lyrical Waltz" by Lisa's father, Tamas Batiashvili. She collaborates with pianist Hélène Grimaud for the Pärt and Rachmaninov.

Lisa, who plays the 1709 "Engleman" Stradivari on loan from the Nippon Foundation, will play the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic in early May and will also be featured performing with the New York Philharmonic during their European tour, with performances in Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Dresden and Prague during the latter half of May.

Lisa spoke to me over the phone several weeks ago, from Minneapolis, where she was playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. We talked about Shostakovich, life in the Soviet Union and more.

Laurie: What made you start playing the violin?

Lisa: The fact that both of my parents were musicians. My father played in a string quartet (the Georgian State Quartet), but at the same time he was teaching young people. I was inspired by the small kids coming to get lessons with my dad, and also my mom was teaching piano. It was something quite evident and natural.

Laurie: How old were you when you started?

Lisa: When I was two, I had a small violin that I kind of played with myself, without getting any lessons, until I was four. Then when I had my fourth birthday, I asked my dad to really start teaching me. He started giving me violin lessons after my fourth birthday.

Laurie: How long did you take from your father?

Lisa: He was my main teacher until we moved to Germany in 1991. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the political situation became unstable, he decided that I should get an education in Europe. We had some friends in Germany who helped us, then I entered the Hamburg Musikhochschule at the age of 11, where I studied for 2-3 years with Mark Lubotsky, who was a pupil of David Oistrakh. I went to Munich when I was 14 and studied with Ana Chumachenko for the the next seven years.

Laurie: You must have had a very special relationship with your father if it worked for that long – not everybody can teach their own child.

Lisa: Well it's (more commonplace) in ex-Soviet life. I know many, many violinists from Russia, or Armenia, or Georgia, who actually were taught by their parents. I think that it has an advantage in the beginning because the attention you get from your parent is very special – if it works. Some parents can be so excessive and exaggerating – I think if my dad had been like that I would have probably given up playing. But he's one of the sweetest people. He was really not a typical violin teacher from the Soviet Union! He is very tender and loving, and he was doing his best to give me a basic knowledge about violin playing. He also realized very quickly that I needed also some other opinions and I needed to expand my knowledge and my education. He could have said, 'No, actually I'm going to be the best teacher for her,' and we could have gone on until I was 16 or 17. The time between 10 and 16 is so important for every musician. He sensed that moment, and that's why we went to Germany when we did.

Laurie: I was reading the notes for your CD, and I understand your father had a big picture of Dmitri Shostakovich on the wall of his studio. What did Shostakovich mean to your family?

Lisa: It's difficult to explain, but he was the composer that really reflected that time in the Soviet Union, more than anybody else. For my father, the music of Shostakovich related most closely to his own life. Shostakovich wanted to express, simply, the limitations that he had a composer and as a person – especially as a person. He was told how life should be by the government at that time. And I think for Shostakovich, as for many other artists, writers and musicians, it was a very difficult thing to accept. In a way, he searched for freedom through his music. His music was very symbolic – most of his music has a story behind it. That's why, for my father's quartet, his music was something that felt very close.

Georgia was pretty far away from Moscow, and the mentality in Georgia was also very different. Georgia is the first country next to the Baltic countries, where they really wanted to escape this communist time and communist regime. My father was already very much aware of western life: his string quartet was traveling and playing concerts everywhere. For him, western Europe was kind of a dream place to go. He used to come back whenever he had these concerts and tell us how wonderful it was.

Laurie: Did your father also grow up in Georgia?

Lisa: Yes, he did.

Laurie: So when you left, this was a big deal.

Lisa: It was a very big deal, especially for my parents. My dad was close to 50 already, and leaving behind everything was very difficult for him. That's one of the reasons why, at age 65, he went back to Georgia. He travels between Germany and Georgia, but his devotion and his love for his country has never stopped. He wants everything possible for his country, which I think is a great quality.

Laurie: When you left, it was primarily so you could go study in Germany -- but the timing was amazing. You left right when things were getting very difficult in Georgia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Lisa: We kind of sensed that the political situation was very, very messy in Georgia. After all the time under Soviet rule, suddenly Georgia was left by itself and had to fight against corruption and ex-Communists who were trying to keep their power, and the independent parties...It was getting very chaotic. The day after we left Georgia, there was a civil war that started in our capital city, Tbilisi. So we escaped the war, just by one day.

Laurie: You were telling me that your teacher, Mark Lubotsky, had been a student of David Oistrakh, and of course the Shostakovich was written for Oistrakh. How did this shape the way you look at the Shostakovich concerto?

Lisa: The years I spent with Mark Lubotsky were very interesting – I studied with him between the age of 12 and 14. Maybe I was slightly too young at that time to take a real profit from his incredible knowledge about music, and his intelligence. But years after that, when I was 20, I went back to him with this piece to talk about it. I really enjoyed just listening to him. Of course, it didn't feel very foreign to me, whatever he had to say was just interesting to hear. Imagine, for all those musicians who were allowed to go to the West to play concerts – they were a very big exception. But they were never allowed to come back and say that they had a good time! (She laughs) So they had to live in this ridiculously fake world, but pretend that they were serving their own country with the music. How do you do that, combine the arts and your talents to a certain government ideology? It was simply very interesting to speak about that, when I played Shostakovich for my teacher.

Laurie: When you play that concerto, are there any specific things that come to mind, within the music?

Lisa: Certainly, yes. Every movement has a completely different character and its own reason for being there. For example in the first movement, we have an atmosphere that is a little bit difficult to understand, when you listen to it for the first time. But when you then think of the landscape in Russia at that time: it was kind of a hopeless time, in the cold, let's say winter morning – very early morning or a late night. Maybe somebody is sitting, thinking about the pessimism of that time in the Soviet Union. If you can imagine this, you can start feeling what is going on in the first movement...We also have certain aggressions in that piece, and fear, and very strong influence from outside. The cadenza is probably one of the most powerful moments in the whole piece. It starts very slowly, softly, then the fear enters into the cadenza, which brings the player – let's say the man behind the whole concerto -- to a hysterical condition toward the end of the cadenza.

The last movement is interpreted in very different ways: some people say it's a dance in Hell. Other people say it's delirium, it's somebody who is actually gone over his normal state of mind. Or, it could Shostakovich's explanation: his acceptance of this difficult time, and his effort to cheer himself up. So everybody can have his own imagination. Shostakovich did not necessarily explain every single phrase that he wrote, but I think it's very important to just capture the exact character and the mood of the piece.

Laurie: It's such a dark piece. Is it difficult mentally, or emotionally, when you are living with this piece, recording it, performing it?

Lisa: It doesn't leave me cold, that's for sure. After every performance I do feel that I've gone through something. But it's a pleasure, when you can put your whole emotion into the work and it doesn't stay as something distant. Shostakovich is one of those works where you can really go into the heart of the piece while playing, and you really can explore that. For me, it's actually something that gives me more power. It doesn't only take, but it gives back to me.

Laurie: I had not heard any music of Giya Kancheli – he is a Georgian composer, then?

Lisa: He's Georgian, yes. I would say probably the most popular Georgian composer. He also has worked a lot in Europe, with great artists like Gidon Kremer and (violist) Yuri Bashmet – he has written a lot of music for them. He wrote film music, as well, though I don't know if he's done it lately. When I was small, watching movies, the most beautiful music you could imagine for children's movies – or just any movies – was his music. That was most obvious reason for wanting to play his music. And then also, his music has such a melancholic atmosphere, it reminds me of my background and of my country. When I play this music, it really takes me back to Georgia.

Laurie: I wondered what quality in Kancheli's music was Georgian. To me, the piece on your CD, "V & V," sounds very ghostly.

Lisa: This is not really typical Georgian music. For the CD just before this one, I recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto together with Georgian miniatures (by Sulkhan Tsintsadze). Those are very typical Georgian pieces, based on folk music and national music. Giya Kancheli's music is based on atmosphere, but still there are moments in his music where you actually realize there is something Georgian in it.

Laurie: I hadn't heard that Lyrical Waltz by Shostakovich, I don't know why...

Lisa: It doesn't exist really, that's why – this is a waltz for piano. My dad did the arrangement. It's kind of the small positive shine on the whole disk! (She laughs)

Laurie: I was also interested in your relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. It sounds like your husband played there for a while.

Lisa: He played there for a while, and of course I lived in Munich and I met the people from the orchestra many times. It was a very special project because of this friendship with the orchestra. The concertmaster who was appointed last year, he and I have known each other for at least 25 years! It was an amazing experience, to record with friends – friends, being with one of the best orchestras in the world!

And it was a unique experience, recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen because he and I hadn't worked together. But the music felt so natural, and I was so amazed by his genius mind. He also had a very good relationship with the orchestra.

We all have so much pressure, especially while doing the recordings. You really want to do your best, you almost can't take the pressure. But then when you have people like this working with you, that makes the whole thing so much easier and so much nicer for all of us.

Laurie: To have an orchestra of friends, led by a brilliant conductor, that sounds good!

Replies

March 18, 2011 at 07:12 PM ·

Thanks for this very interesting interview! One thing, she performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, not Minneapolis Symphony. :) It gets confusing, I know. 

March 19, 2011 at 03:19 AM ·

Great interview and great CD.  Thanks to Lisa and Laurie!

March 20, 2011 at 03:10 PM ·

Someone posted a link to her playing somewhere that looked like a restaurant about a year ago. I have no idea how to find that here. She was very good.

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