BBCSO/Oramo – Hillborg premiere showcases Batiashvili's fearless playing

Barbican, London
Lisa Batiashvili gave a tonally rich, technically immaculate performance in the first UK outing for Hillborg’s colourful but contrived second violin concerto

Anders Hillborg’s second violin concerto has travelled widely since Lisa Batiashvili, its dedicatee, gave the first performance in Stockholm in October last year, with Sakari Oramo conducting. Other violinists have taken it up, too, but it was Batiashvili who introduced it to the UK, as the centrepiece of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert with Oramo.

So many of Hillborg’s works have evocative titles that it’s a surprise to find this 25-minute single movement comes with a generic title and no declared narrative or programme, except the composer’s suggestion that the solo violin undertakes a “voyage” in the course of it. The music itself, though, is certainly colourful enough to sustain any amount of extra-musical allusion, all unfolded over a chordal background of diatonic nostalgia. There are microtonal clusters and postmodern forest murmurs, as well as eruptions of vaguely middle eastern dance, and occasional moments that ring more expressively true, such as the duet for oboes that precedes the final section.

If the rest seems entirely contrived and too strenuously ingratiating, the concerto does make a fine showcase for Batiashvili’s fearless playing, which is so tonally rich and technically immaculate. Hillborg had provided her encore, too – a violin-and-orchestra arrangement of a Bach chorale prelude that gave everyone even more opportunity to wonder at the faultless purity of Batiashvili’s playing.

On either side of the premiere, Oramo’s Sibelius cycle continued with the most enigmatic of the symphonies, the Sixth and the Fourth. The performances were exceptional, and the beginnings of both works especially demonstrated how the string section of the BBCSO has prospered under Oramo’s supervision – wonderfully refined and translucent in the modal polyphony that opens the Sixth, then fathomlessly deep and dark in the cello ruminations of the Fourth.

Oramo doesn’t offer easy solutions to the questions posed in either works. But he does sometimes illuminate detail that other conductors gloss over, such as the passage in the finale of the Fourth that anticipates a similar moment in the Fifth. But where that later version leads straight into that symphony’s glorious, affirmative “swan” theme, perhaps the most heart-stopping passage in all of Sibelius, in the Fourth it just leads to chaos and despair. Oramo didn’t disguise the rawness of that moment, or its discomfiting effect, and his account was more powerful for it.

• On BBC iPlayer until 29 December.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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