The 1930s was an incredibly rich decade for the violin concerto, thriving on what was the uncertainty of the age. Over 30 violin concertos materialized across the decade with well over a dozen, from Stravinskyand Berg’s through to Barber’s and Britten’s concertos all commanding iconic status within the violinist’s repertory.
Gil Shaham is the leading violinist of his generation. He was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1990, and in 2008 he received the coveted Avery Fisher Prize. In 2012, Gil was named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America, citing his “special kind of humanism”. Combine this “humanism” with a flawless technique and hisRead more generosity of spirit, and the musical results are nothing short of inspired.
CD1. Gil’s recording of the Barber Violin Concerto displays his trademark rich soulfulness as well as the sounds of urban America when called for, skyscrapers, sirens, clearly manifest themselves in the last movement. The weeping, if not lamenting, solo violin in the Berg concerto, harmonized with very poignant 12-tone chords, reveals emotionally charged heart on sleeve mourning in this recording. For Hartmann’s Concerto funebre Gil is reunited with acclaimed Sejong Soloists, with whom he has recorded Mendelssohn’s octet and Haydn concerti (CC08), the New York Times observing from a concert performance of the Hartmann that Shaham “perfectly characterised the work’s anguished and occasionally angry spirit”.
CD2. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is a concerto with which Gil and conductor David Robertson have performed together countless times. The result is an interpretation which is luminous, light and dancing, The Times noting from this performance that “Shaham’s interpretation was exceptionally spirited and fresh, always at one with the incisive accompaniment from Robertson’s orchestra.” Benjamin Britten’s concerto is arguably the most challenging to play on this collection and is arguably the most sobering work here, and shows another side of Shaham’s musical personality; a work with a martial-like drama, and for the most part a forceful bordering on violent execution of the work unfolds, interspersed, where called for, an ethereal sound world bordering on the surreal; the tonal ambiguity at the end of the third movement positively haunting. In concert the Chicago Classical Review notes, “This is music that fits Gil Shaham like a well-tailored glove.”
R E V I E W:
1930s VIOLIN CONCERTOS, VOL. 1 • Gil Shaham (vn, cond);3 David Robertson, cond;1,2,4 Juanjo Mena, cond;5 New York PO;1 Staatskapelle Dresden;2 Sejong Soloists;3 BBC SO;4 Boston SO5 • CANARY 12 (2 CDs: 125:13) Live: New York 2/25–27/2010;1 Dresden 6/13–15/2010;2 New York 8/31 & 9/1/2013;3 London 12/8/2008;4 Boston 11/1–3 & 6/20125
This splendid new collection of violin concertos from Gil Shaham features familiar works, some of them established repertoire, alongside two (to me, at least) lesser-known works. The first of these, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto from 1939–40, struck me as partly well written and partly tuneful and breezy in an almost pop-classical style. Unfortunately, this was also the impression of the artist for whom it was commissioned, violinist Iso Briselli, who not only refused to play it (the liner notes indicate that this decision was influenced by Briselli’s teacher, Albert Meiff) but returned it to the composer along with the promised advance ($500, half the total fee). The concerto was then offered to Albert Spalding, who gave the premiere in February 1941. Barber revised the concerto considerably in 1948, removing some passages and changing the climax of the Adagio and orchestration in the finale. Technically, then, one really can’t call this a 1930s violin concerto, but Shaham includes it because it was at least begun in 1939. It’s a nice if inconsequential piece, played with fervor and tensile strength by Shaham and conducted well by Robertson, but I wasn’t convinced of its excellence as music except for the much-revised last movement, one of the most powerful pieces Barber ever wrote.
The 1935 Berg Concerto, of course, was an instant success and is considered a classic. Shaham’s performance is absolutely transcendent, even finer than the initial recording by the man who commissioned the concerto, violinist Louis Krasner, with Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra. (There is a performance available online with Krasner that purports to be conducted by Anton Webern, but the liner notes of this set insist that Webern, too emotionally upset to conduct the work in public, turned the premiere over to Hermann Scherchen after two rehearsals.) One of the things I enjoyed most about this performance was, again, the excellent conducting of Robertson, this time with the Staatskapelle Dresden.
Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a socialist in the true sense of the word and thus diametrically opposed to Hitler’s National Socialism, decided to stay in Germany (Dresden, to be exact) for the duration of the Nazi era but was well known both in and outside Germany as a staunch defender of personal liberties. Thus his works found ready acceptance abroad, for instance his Miserae Symphony of 1935 being premiered in Prague, although stripped (so the notes say) of its dedication to the first victims of the Dachau concentration camp. His concerto, like Barber’s, was written in 1939 and not premiered until February 1940 in Switzerland by violinist Karl Neracher and conductor Ernst Klug. And, as in the case of Barber, Hartmann made extensive revisions, quite a bit later in fact (1959), at that time giving the work its Italian title. Interestingly, the champion of this concerto, which owes more musically to Max Reger than to the serialists, was violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the widower of celebrated German soprano Elfride Trötschel whose recordings are reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Despite its reliance on Reger, the Hartmann Concerto is dark in mood and thorny in its use of harmonies, sounding to me more like bits of the Berg Concerto mixed in with Bartók. (Of course, not having seen or heard the original score, I don’t know how much of this is the product of the 1959 revisions.) Here, too, Shaham plays in dark, muted colors, different from his natural exuberance on the instrument, and he also conducts the orchestra (Sejong Soloists, a group of 23 virtuoso string players) in the LeFrak Concert Hall of the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens College, CUNY. But Hartmann’s Concerto, though dedicated to his four-year-old son whose future seemed more than a little uncertain at the time (1939–40), is also quite dark by nature. Incredibly, the music evolves, despite breaks between movements, as if Hartmann conceived the work in one continuous sweep. It is superb music, and the combination of pathos without sentiment and energy in this performance elevate it to a very exalted level.
Shaham has been a champion of the Stravinsky Concerto (1931) for some time now. I’ve also heard a performance he gave some years ago with the NBR Symphony Orchestra of New Zealand under Christoph von Dohnányi, and as in that version, his playing is not merely crisp but insouciant, tossing off the music as if he were having the time of his life. In doing so, he makes the listener enjoy it as well, elevating it above its cult status as an academic-styled work and bringing it into the fore of better-liked violin concertos. Robertson’s conducting, once again, is ideally suited for this modern music, giving the BBC Symphony a lilt, bounce, and swagger that matches the soloist’s energy.
Shaham also plays the Britten Concerto well, but here I was not quite as convinced by his performance as I was by the stupendous 1967 version by Wanda Wi?komirska with the Warsaw Philharmonic (Orchestral Concert 12). There is just a bit more passion and less of a clinical quality in Wi?komirska’s stupendous reading, which eclipses every version I’ve heard thus far. But overall this is certainly a fine album, particularly for Shaham admirers, and the sound quality is consistently superb.
Powerful contemporary works brought to life by GiJune 30, 2014By Warren Harris See All My Reviews"This recording is interesting, in that violinist Gil Shaham has chosen 5 violin concertos composed in the 1930s, from Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten. The well written liner notes provide informative and relevant background information on each of the works, as well as detailing Mr. Shahams interest in exploring violin concertos written in the early 1900s. If this first volume (in the form of a 2 CD set) is any indication, then these pieces and those to come are certainly worth listening to and contemplating. The first work is Barbers Violin Concerto, Op. 14. The piece is beautiful, particularly the first two movements, and the historical background is equally fascinating. The third movement, while not as melodically stunning as the first two, requires virtuoso skills from the soloist that made this listener want to applaud the recording as well. Amazing. The second work, Bergs Violin Concerto To the Memory of an Angel, is a haunting and powerful tribute to an 18 year old girl that Berg (per the liner notes) loved as if she were his own child. I was unfamiliar with the background to the piece prior to hearing it, but emotion and intent was clear right away. And Mr. Shahams abilities turn this into a captivating and very human experience. Closing the first CD is Hartmanns Concerto funebre, which is performed with the Sejong Soloists. While this concerto is bit more chromatic and angst filled, it is also very approachable and not off putting in the slightest, particularly given the historical events occurring at the time of the creation of the piece. The first of the two works on the second CD is Stravinskys Violin Concerto in D Major. This is a somewhat playful piece that requires great dexterity on the part of the soloist, but filled with back-and-forth Stravinsky motifs throughout the work. This is definitely not a concerto for the timid, and Mr. Shaham attacks it and conquers it. The final piece in this collection is Brittens Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, a rather pensive sounding piece, both uneasy and driven at the same time. It is clear that Britten was uncomfortable with current world events at the time (and who can blame him?), and this clearly shows in the musical language that he uses here. That being said, the work is also strikingly clear and lovely in the same way that an overly chilly frost-laden day is first thing in the morning. This is a unique composition, and most definitely deserving of in-depth active listening. This recording is also of exceptional quality, in addition to giving the listener much to experience intellectually and emotionally. Strongly recommended."Report Abuse
Snapshot of a DecadeMay 27, 2014By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA)See All My Reviews"There's an advantage to running your own record label -- it's easier to do the projects that you really believe in. In this case, Gil Shaham is the owner/operator of Canary Classics, and the project is a survey of violin concertos of the 1930's. Just the lineup of composers for this first volume show how rich this decade was: Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Karl Amadeus Harmann, and Igor Stravinsky all wrote violin concertos in the 1930's.This 2-CD set brings together recordings of Shaham performing in different venues with different forces, so there's a little unevenness in the sound. But not in the performances themselves. Shaham plays every work insightfully and with conviction. Shaham's rendition of Berg's Violin Concerto brings out the emotion suggested by the subtitle "To the Memory of an Angel." He highlights the romantic expressiveness of the work, letting the dodecaphonic structure fade far into the background.Stravinsky's Violin concerto is played with dryness and acerbic wit, while Britten's youthful Op. 15 concerto revels in its more somber tone and thicker harmonies. For me, the two standouts (and that's a relative term) were the Hartmann "Concerto funebre" and Samuel Barber's violin concerto. Hartmann's work reflects the deep despair this anti-fascist composer felt living in the heart of Nazi Germany. Shaham both plays and conducts, making this a very intimate reading. The pathos expressed is heart-breaking, and Shaham delivers it with the sensitivity it deserves. The opening work is Barber's violin concerto, recorded in a live performance. David Robinson and the New York Philharmonic make this richly romantic work positively luminescent. Shaham sings through his violin, taking full advantage of Barber's lyrical music. The energy in the final movement is almost palpable, and the enthusiastic response is well-deserved."Report Abuse