It is a critic’s lot to leave a concert hall at least somewhat unsatisfied. Not in the sense that the afternoon or evening just spent was a waste — it almost never is — but because of the things, few or many, that one wished were different, not for egotistical reasons, but simply because of strongly held beliefs about what serves the music best.
One index of Sunday’s recital by violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Paul Lewis, then, is that at the end I could not think of a single thing I would have wanted to be other than it was — except, perhaps, the level of coughing in Jordan Hall. It wasn’t simply that these were two preeminent instrumentalists executing a shared vision, or that they illuminated music that often eludes even skilled performers. It was simply that everything they tried, down to the details, seemed completely idiomatic and true. Rare, indeed.
Take the two Schubert pieces that opened the program, which have never gained the popularity that the violin-piano works of other composers have. Batiashvili, playing with a uniquely dark and glowing sound, and Lewis, marshaling exceptional sensitivity, made them completely convincing.
In the “Grand Duo” Sonata they found and never relinquished ideal balances; their elegance and restraint meant that the music’s few outbursts carried an outsized ability to surprise. Countless harmonic and tempo shifts can make the Rondo in B minor seem labyrinthine even to listeners who know the signposts. Here, the duo found little gestures that linked sections together; Batiashvili’s exquisitely sustained lines and Lewis’s steady pulse made the thing seem coherent and almost logical.
Beethoven’s last violin sonata, Op. 96, is his most elusive, right from the murmured opening that questions instead of declares. For three movements the composer works with an absolute economy of means. The playing was a model of dynamic, rhythmic, and textural control, but those technical skills were in the service of making the piece seem like some unreal arcadia, distant from this world. Then in the finale, where Beethoven cuts loose, the duo made it sound irresistibly fun.
Before the Beethoven, each performer took a solo turn in Baroque repertoire. Batiashvili chose a Telemann Fantasy in D minor notable for its reserves of graceful melody and lightly skipping dance rhythms. Lewis played Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” Each was transfixing in its own way. Even the encores — a Brahms Hungarian Dance and Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” — seemed like the right way to cap a perfect afternoon.