1930s Violin Concertos Vol 1
If any genre is likely to tap the emotional resources of a great composer, it’s the violin concerto – Vivaldi wrote dozens of them, Bach wrote three masterpieces, and there are the lyrical outpourings of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, the later Romantics and the 20th-century masters who Gil Shaham is centring on in this laudable enterprise of ‘1930s Violin Concertos’. And this is just the start: upcoming, with any luck, are Walton, Szymanowski, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartók, Hindemith – and I’ve even tweeted the suggestion of Arnold Bax, a lovely work that’s sorely in need of a benchmark recording. But maybe that’s being a little too optimistic.
What first struck me about this initial volume is how Shaham, a fine musician even 20 or so years ago, has matured as a player, his vibrato marginally quicker and more intense than it had been, his sound palette far subtler, less prone to over-ripeness, his range of expression wider, more sensitive to the rise and fall of a phrase. You sense this immediately in Barber’s effusively lyrical Concerto, which Shaham had famously recorded for DG under André Previn. Here, aside from the advantage of a more spontaneous live recording context and David Robertson’s animated New York Philharmonic accompaniment, Shaham finds so much more than sweetness and brilliance, diving in and around the pages of the score, musing quietly or listening to his colleagues. He makes large-scale chamber music rather than taking centre stage, and provides a viable alternative to, say, Stern and Bernstein.
The Dresden recording of Alban Berg’s gritty but often meltingly beautiful Concerto, captured in warm, fairly close-set sound, is similarly intimate, Shaham, Robertson and the Dresden players between them lending the work a firmly shaped rhythmic profile and, come the appearance of the Bach chorale towards the work’s close, touching our hearts with the sheer eloquence of their playing. The orchestra’s pooled tone has a burnished, full-bodied quality and excels in all instrumental departments. Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, a still under-appreciated masterpiece from an unsung hero whose internal exile during difficult times signalled a man of rare integrity, is performed with passion and commitment by Shaham and the accomplished Sejong Soloists, another recording that has great immediacy. Yes, we do already have fine versions by Thomas Zehetmair and André Gertler but Shaham’s recording is easily as good as theirs. Hartmann’s heart is nowhere near his sleeve and yet the depth of his concerto, and the skill with which he conveys his gnarled emotions, is cause for wonder.
Britten’s precocious early masterpiece is dominated by a striking cadenza at the tail-end of its central scherzo and a profound closing passacaglia that’s virtually the length of the two previous movements put together. The Concerto’s disturbingly ambiguous last minutes are played with great intensity both by Shaham and a notably refined Boston Symphony under Juanjo Mena. Henceforth this should be considered one of the finest versions of Britten’s Concerto currently available. In Stravinsky’s dapper Violin Concerto, Shaham, Robertson and the BBC SO are at their best in the central ‘arias’, which are both expressive and pungent, the orchestra enjoying clear, closely balanced sound (especially the trumpets in the first movement), and I love the way the closing Capriccio jumps in just as the second ‘aria’ finishes. Like the other performances gathered here, it bristles with life. With superb booklet-notes by Claire Delamarche, this is a most distinguished release and I can’t wait for the second instalment, with or without Bax.