The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili came up with a concept title, Secret Love Letters, for her latest album on Deutsche Grammophon. For Batiashvili, the theme strikes a very deep chord; in her booklet note, she writes of the pain she felt going back to her earliest childhood memories when she had a crush on a 4-year-old boy in kindergarten.
In music, there are a number of famously secret love letters. To cite two not on this recording, Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite was eventually revealed to be a series of coded messages to a secret partner in an extramarital affair, and the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was, if Willem Mengelberg is to be believed, a declaration of love to the composer’s future wife, Alma Schindler.
However, of the four works on Batiashvili’s program — three of which are by French composers — only the outlier by a Polish composer seems to bear the weight of the album’s title. And it is by far the most interesting work of them all, treated to a sumptuous performance by Batiashvili, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and The Philadelphia Orchestra.
This would be Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which in a single 25-minute movement creates a fantastical world of its own. We are pitched right away into a fancifully imaginative orchestral introduction, all sprightly magic, and the following solo violin line has a vaguely oriental cast. Among familiar repertoire, perhaps the “Dance of the Firebird” from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet comes closest in feeling to the sound world generated here. Yet ecstasy tinged with eroticism moves almost imperceptibly into angst, and there are several back-and-forth mood swings culminating in massive climaxes of orchestral agony before the piece ends quietly, almost impishly.
The concerto was first performed in America in 1924, with Paul Kochanski (who also contributed the cadenza) playing the solo part and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphians. The orchestral part sounds like it was made for a supreme colorist like Stokowski — and it’s notable that Nézet-Séguin, whose devotion to Stokowski and the “Philadelphia sound” has been documented on recordings before, chose to record this piece in the Academy of Music, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s old home, rather than the orchestra’s current home, the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.
Batiashvili believes that the concerto was written with the composer in agony about his infatuation with another man in a time when such love was forbidden by law and custom. Whether or not that’s true, she seems to channel the pain by surmounting passages in the high register with maximum tension. Nézet-Séguin stirs the pot with considerable passion, too, though the old building can barely contain the huge washes of sound that he and the Philadelphians whip up.
Ernest Chausson’s Poème — a single-movement violin concerto in all but name — offers a more conventionally Romantic point of view of the emotions of love translated into music, the angst not quite as aching, the orchestral decoration staying within 19th-century boundaries. Nézet-Séguin then steps off the podium and goes to the piano to delicately accompany Batiashvili in Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Beau soir as a brief benediction.
Now what is César Franck’s often-covered Sonata for Violin and Piano doing here? Beats me. It was composed as a wedding present for the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, but that was no secret — and Batiashvili doesn’t come up with a good reason for its inclusion in her notes, though she certainly plays it fervently and beautifully with pianist Giorgi Gigashvili. Recorded in Berlin three months after the concerto sessions, it should have been placed on another album.