The existential angst in this Philharmonia programme under Lahav Shani was presumably meant to come from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In the event, Jean Sibelius rather stole Mahler’s thunder… or at least Lisa Batiashvili did in a remarkable performance of the Violin Concerto in D minor that plumbed the depths of darkness and despair. 

Lisa Batiashvili
© Sammy Hart | DG

In October, I heard Augustin Hadelich play the Sibelius with the LPO in the same hall, but this performance couldn’t have been more different. Where Hadelich’s playing was veiled and poetic, Batiashviili came at it from another angle. The hushed opening was less icy and more of a lament, the Allegro moderato taken at an unhurried pace. Batiashvili’s double-stopping was muscular, her rich tone that of burnt caramel. Standing very still, with few histrionics, her cadenza had incredible weight, the Philharmonia violin section glued to her every move. 

Cloaked by dusky clarinets, the central Adagio was grief-stricken, Batiashvili carving out velvety black phrases from her Guarneri’s G string. And the finale was less a “polonaise for polar bears” (Donald Tovey’s depiction) and more of a dangerous dance, occasionally ambushed by percussive cellos and snarling horns. This was the most formidable, emotionally intense account of the concerto I’ve heard. Batiashvili took us to a very dark place indeed. Evening Song, a traditional Finnish song arrange by Jarkko Riihimäki, provided a moment of balm as her encore. 

At 80 minutes, Mahler’s Sixth was certainly attacked with vigour. Shani, conducting without a baton, both arms windmilling in small circular gestures, urging on his forces. The first movement bristled, grumbling bassoons, clarinets and oboes – bells up – braying and a sense of menace, reinforced by placing the Scherzo before the Andante, as Mahler originally intended. 

But rather than plunging us back into Batiashvili’s Sibelian darkness, this was an exuberant, virtuosic display of the Philharmonia’s muscle. The Scherzo was viciously sarcastic, peppered with pungent clarinets and prickly xylophone, growling tuba and the thwack of the rute – a twiggy bunch of sticks – beaten against the frame of the bass drum. 

Shani shaped a lovely transition into the nostalgic, oboe-led Trio and, with a string section bolstered after the concerto to 57, the Andante blossomed from a pale alpine flower into a heart-on-sleeve declaration of love. The off-stage cowbells were a little distant – were these cows in the next valley? – but the on-stage ones were a happy herd. 

The finale’s first hammer blow brought a moment of unintended comedy when the percussionist’s backlift –  higher than ex-England cricketer Graham Gooch in his pomp – caused audience members in the front row of the choir stalls to visibly flinch as it suddenly loomed below their noses. It came down with a crunching thud though.