Interview with Lisa Batiashvili: Tchaikovsky at Last

November 7, 2016, 10:45 PM · Despite 30-some years of violin playing, and despite growing up in the Soviet Union, Lisa Batiashvili only just started learning the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto a few years ago.

Born in Tbilisi in 1979, "I was hearing this concerto all the time during my first 11 years in Georgia, traveling also for the Soviet Union and doing various competitions. That was the piece that everybody wanted to play. I just thought, I want to do other concerti."

Lisa Batiashvili
Lisa Batiashvili. Photo by Sammy Hart/DG, courtesy Deutsche Grammophon.

"I heard a lot of Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein," Batiashvili said. "I had to step away from it because I knew I would get too influenced by other people; it was just impossible not to."

In 1993 she moved to Munich, and still, "there were other pieces that I really wanted to learn with my teacher Ana Chumachenko," she said. It was always there, but "I needed to find the moment when I was very keen on playing this concerto."

In recent years, with so much other repertoire under her belt, she finally felt a desire to take a look at the Tchaikovsky, a concerto she'd spent a lifetime avoiding. Last week Batiashvili released a new recording of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin. It was Barenboim who finally convinced her to look at the piece.

Barenboim, who had not recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto before, heard Batiashvili for the first time during a television broadcast of the Sibelius Concerto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He immediately called her and asked if she's like to perform the piece with him. What followed was a series of performances together with the Staatskapelle Berlin (Berlin State Opera Orchestra), four years in row at its annual end-of-season concert.

"It was very interesting, at this stage of my playing, to start learning a piece that everybody knows by heart," Batiashvili said. "If you hear the piece for years and years and you don't actually know what is written in the score, you can get very surprised," she said. "You realize how much people do because of habit and tradition."

Batiashvili has several editions, and she uses an Oistrakh edition.

"There is already so much in the music that you really don't have to add anything. It's just there," Batiashvili said. "You play it with your heart, and it just comes out. You don't have to make it good because it's already great music."

"This work is probably the most complete work by Tchaikovsky; you can hear that he has worked to make it as as perfect as possible, as refined as possible," she said. "It's also a very honest work, full of natural inspiration."

For late-Romantic work by a composer known for emotional expression, the violin concerto harkens back to certain Classical-period aesthetics, as Batiashvili sees it.

"I do see a lot of continuation of Mozart," she said. "There is some lightness, there is some sparkle. There is an ease and joy that is special in this piece which is, I think, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by classical-era repertoire, like Mozart. You can absolutely hear that, and that is a huge difference between this concerto and, for example, Brahms, which is is more weighty. Here you can be be very lyrical and light."

The other piece she and Barenboim recorded alongside the Tchaikovsky was the Sibelius Violin Concerto. "It's a completely different color," she said. In fact, they realized that they even needed to change the positioning of all the microphones and the balance for each piece. "The Sibelius requires so much more depth and so much more darkness," she said. "You have so much more brass in the second movement, you have a completely different color."

Both works are kind of "only children" -- the only violin concerto written by either composer.

For the Sibelius, one might argue the violin concerto is simply his best work, if one is a violinist. "All his skills, all his abilities, all his nice tunes, they just went into this concerto!" Batiashvili said. Sibelius, a violinist himself, went all-out for his violin concerto. "The first version was a very long version that he later shortened by 16 minutes."

Unlike with the Tchaikovsky, Batiashvili had played the Sibelius with many different conductors and orchestras, "and especially a lot of Finnish conductors and orchestras who are raised with this music and have this music in their genes," she said. It was a different experience with Barenboim. "It was not always this intuitive, genetic way of approaching this piece; it was much more analytical but at the same time, incredibly inspiring and logical. He's just incredible personality; there is nothing he does not know about music, about history, about people."

Batiashvili has something else in common with Barenboim; like him, she does not shy away from the political.

"Daniel Barenboim is an amazing example of the fact that you can be more than just a musician," Batiashvili said. "You can use your talent and your power in music to try to fix conflicts, or to try to get together people who are literally at war," she said.

The New York Times described an incident in which Batiashvili performed in 2014 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev, known for his friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin -- and for supporting his policies. Not being a fan herself of Putin's politics, Batiashvili came up with her own form of protest: she performed an encore at that concert, "Requiem for Ukraine," which she had commissioned from Georgian composer, Igor Loboda.

"That was the only way I could stand together with (Gergiev) on the stage; to say my opinion about what was happening, at least through the music," she told me. "And I think music is the best way to say things. For me, it's very important to be an honest person, someone who actually defends my own position. As musicians, we are responsible for what we do for our nation and for the people outside it. This should not be something where people close their eyes because they like somebody's playing, conducting or singing. We still should be conscious about what we are doing."

Batiashvili currently plays a 1739 Guarneri del Gesù. "It is one of his last instruments. I've been playing it about two and a half years." Before that, she had played on several Strads; one for 10 years and another for two. Her previous violin was on loan from the Nippon Foundation in Japan.

"Nippon Foundation is doing a fantastic job, buying instruments and loaning them to young artists. I'm very grateful that I was able to use one of their violins," she said.

Unfortunately, travel with that violin began to get difficult, with laws requiring her to declare the instrument whenever leaving the EU, she said. Eventually she realized she needed to find another solution, and she convinced a family in Germany to invest in a violin for her. Searching for that instrument proved quite a process.

"The moment I started looking for an instrument, all the violin dealers came to me," she said. Selling a Strad or Guarneri is a big deal, "so I had people coming from all different continents with these great instruments. I was almost crazy by the end of it." She was looking for something in good condition, with the right sound, that felt comfortable -- it took a year and a half to find it.

"It's very interesting to compare it to the Strad(s)," she said. "I switched to Guarneri, and suddenly many things are much more simple and straightforward. I used go to a violin maker in every city because my violin was very capricious, changing moods all the time. Now I have a violin that is stable; I haven't ever had to go to a violin maker. And it sounds good in all kinds of halls: in big and small halls, and with loud orchestras or with light chamber music pieces. It makes you realize that these are very rare instruments, they have such incredible possibilities."

Who played the del Gesù before her?

"I have never been really interested in knowing that -- this violin was so fantastic, I didn't care who was playing it before!" she said. "I'm sure that great people played it, though, because the sound is always influenced by the people who play on it. I could tell that this instrument had been in good hands."

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November 8, 2016 at 03:59 PM · thanks for that interview. she is a star, although seemingly much more famous in Europe (where she is an absolute star) than in the US.

November 8, 2016 at 09:40 PM · It's always great to read an interview with my favorite violinist. I don't know why she isn't better known in the US, but from the moment I saw the video of her playing Sibelius on youtube, presumably the same one Barenboim saw, I keep getting blown away.

November 10, 2016 at 05:43 AM · So fine a performer . . . .

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