Whatever our relationship with music we often have moments in our lives where the thing we’ve always loved feels like little more than a habit, or worse still a chore. You go to a concert and sit through it, and you know in your head that the orchestra played well and that the soloists were excellent, but your heart remains unmoved. Since the beginning of April I’d been disenchanted by classical music, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, and I needed an experience to blow the cobwebs away. Lisa Batiashvili did that for me on Sunday, performing Brahms’ notoriously difficult Violin Concerto with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann.

Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon
Lisa Batiashvili
© Anja Frers and Deutsche Grammophon

Batiashvili has a truly impressive sound, rich throughout its range, and from forte to piano, but still maintaining a diverse variety of colours. In the opening movement of the concerto the difficulties were completely imperceptible, so thoroughly mastered and internalised, that only the music sung through, and it did so radiantly. The high passages were rounded and beautifully phrased, while the rapid passages brimmed with energy. There was no moment which was routine, and the whole performance exuded freshness. The short cadenza (by the Italian composer Feruccio Busoni), with a timpani roll as accompaniment, was really exciting, with a tension so often missing in cadenzas. Under Thielemann, the orchestra were set somewhat in the background, and with such an exuberant soloist worked well. They were constantly there supporting, but never outshining or drowning out Batiashvili.

The second movement was also poised and the orchestra created a beautiful cushion of sound throughout, allowing the violin to float effortlessly on top. In spite of the wonderful playing, I missed a sense of general direction through this movement; it seemed to wander aimlessly through pastoral beauty, but without a goal. The finale was a fireball of energy, both from soloist and orchestra, with a level of precision that few orchestras and few soloists can achieve. One thing that really struck me about this performance was the level of excitement that precision brings. When both orchestra and soloist play with this level of rhythmic perfection, adding their own musical wills to that, there is a level of spine-tingling exhilaration which cannot be replaced by any amount of musical inspiration alone.

Framing the concerto were two other works by Brahms, his Academic Festival Overture, and his Fourth Symphony. The overture was an exemplary display of orchestral virtuosity. Unlike so much of Brahms’ music, this work is an orchestral showpiece, with the power to dazzle the audience, and the Staatskapelle did just that. From the snappy rhythms of the opening to the long melodies at the heart of the work, this was a wonderful performance and a joy to listen to.

Christian Thielemann is known for his performances of the core 19th-century, German repertoire, and in the concert hall that means Brahms first and foremost. His rendition of the Fourth Symphony was strident, but extraordinarily coherent; from beginning to end you could sense the whole architecture of this cathedral of a work. The second movement, so often rambling and aimless, was magical and had a golden thread phrased through it from beginning to end, while the third movement was fully the driving late 19th-century scherzo it should be. The finale, though relatively fast in tempo, was weighty in sound, with so much contrast afforded to the different variations, while still holding together a sense of the narrative whole. The raw sound of the Staatskapelle here was resplendent, but still full of depth, creating the perfect foundation for Brahms’ serious and dense soundworld. However, one basic thing was neglected – the ensemble. The first note in the strings was not together, and the whole performance was hampered by a lack of togetherness, not only in rapid rhythmic passages, but also in longer melodies. Though Thielemann’s strong musical conception of the piece allowed the music to persist through, ensemble is something which should be taken for granted with an orchestra such as this.

This was one of the most exciting concerts I’ve been to in a long time, with great performances from orchestra, soloist, and conductor. A concert with just one composer on the programme can be a difficult thing to pull off, even if the composer is Brahms, but with music-making of this quality anything is possible.

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