Flash-forward a couple of years. Some publicity materials concerning Batiashvili came my way. And they included comments from a Minneapolis critic, who had heard Batiashvili in the Shostakovich, also in 2007. He wrote, “. . . a genuinely great performance, standing among the summits of my half-century of concertgoing.” One mustn’t need — i.e., require — reinforcement. Standing alone can be splendid, as well as necessary. Still, a little reinforcement is not so bad, now and then.
On the new album, Batiashvili plays the Shostakovich concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (a Finn, as it happens, like Oramo). Does the recording measure up to the live performance I heard? No. It is a little careful, a little studied. It is nevertheless commendable, and more than that: excellent. Elsewhere on the album, Batiashvili plays two pieces in the company of Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist. One of the pieces is Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian master. (He is an oasis in the desert of today’s composition.) This is a simple, gentle, rocking, mysterious thing. Pärt can do more with a few notes than other composers can do with thousands.
Over the years, I have remarked on a certain spirituality, a nobility of soul, coming through Batiashvili’s playing. “You play who you are,” goes an old saying. If Batiashvili is an ax-murderer, so to speak, I don’t want to hear about it.
Ray Chen, 22, has just emerged. He is a Taiwanese-born violinist who grew up in Australia and studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. (The internationalism of music is a wonderful fact.) Chen’s debut album, on Sony Classical, is called Virtuoso. Is it bragging if it’s true? A diverse program begins with Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, in the arrangement by Kreisler. It’s nice to see a youngster play such “old-fashioned” music — music that will long outlive anyone who sneers at it. Chen makes a big, beautiful, masculine sound. And he is full of confidence, eager to play.
After the Tartini comes Bach: the famous Chaconne in D minor (plucked from a partita). In a kind of letter published in the CD booklet — “Dear Listener” — Chen says he calls this piece “The Soul Cleanser.” That is a neat designation. He marches through the Chaconne with vigor, with almost a teenage lustiness, though he does not exclude purity. You have to admire Chen’s sheer enthusiasm: He does not treat this holy work as a holy object, to be trembled before. He just attacks it with gusto. For me, it is a little big, a little bold — too much a showpiece, too much of a steamroller. But I smiled on hearing Chen, and I think Bach would, too.
In that letter, Chen takes a little shot at Paganini. He does so when praising Wieniawski, in whom he finds more “musical depth” than he does in Paganini. “Really now, at least be more rewarding musically if we have to practice six hours a day just to play one of your caprices!” Julia Fischer begs to differ. She has recorded Paganini’s two dozen finger-challengers for Decca. And she says, “The Caprices represent twenty-four moods, little musical ideas, each one different, each one appealing.” A chacun son goût. And, in this debate, I prefer Fischer’s.
A 27-year-old German, she has not been known as a virtuoso — as a string burner. But she has plenty of technique, as she shows on this disc. And she makes a strong musical case for the caprices: They are not mere finger-challengers. I suspect that young Chen, someday, will come around.