Peter Quantrill visits the Barbican on 19 January 2020 for the performance
Simon Rattle has not yet conducted Berg’s final opera Lulu in the theatre but the score is in his bones, one felt, from this conductor-led, concertante-style, at points rapt and revelatory account of the Violin Concerto. He found a collegial ally in Lisa Batiashvili, who took her cue from the opening clarinet and harp figurations to produce a bleached, indifferent tone for the solo part’s naked 5ths – like Lulu wandering the stage in a white shift – which nonetheless took on subtle colorations at their every reappearance.
The dirty waltz rhythms of the first movement’s third episode were perfectly caught, and the concerto’s closely woven form was outlined with rare clarity compared to more voluptuously shaped performances which tend to descend into lush, dodecaphonic noodling. Shunning the bravura of a Zukerman or a Mutter in the concerto, Batiashvili responded with improvisatory delicacy of line and feeling to a series of solos and duets – clarinet, violas, the solo trombone especially – coaxed by Rattle from Berg’s dissolving counterpoint.
It’s a mark of the work’s finest readings that the Bach quotation arrives almost without remark, as if no other music could be more natural. Its phrasing here bore the soloist towards a serene apotheosis with the sense of a journey taken and, for once, to a complete fulfilment of the concerto’s subtitle, ‘to the memory of an angel’, without courting the cheap or mawkish sentiment that can cloud the end of Lulu. As a tribute to Berg’s powers of orchestration, as well as Manon Gropius, the performance could hardly have been improved.