Gil Shaham (violin) with
My Gil Shaham conversion experience was a live performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto I had been dreading. The work occupied the second half of a Chicago Symphony program, and I had actually considered passing on it. Why endure a stuffy room with Sir Edward at his most tiresome and earnest when I could cross Michigan Avenue and spend some quality time with Monet's sunlit haystacks? Though I had no less than three versions of the concerto in my collection, I remained obstinately unconvinced. This elephantine creation brought to mind a piece of antique Victorian furniture: ornate, overbearing, and not very comfortable to sit on. Happily, I decided to stay for the performance, and soon learned that my problem was not with the work, but with the three lackluster versions I owned. Shaham played the concerto as if the ink was still wet on the page. His approach was intense, unreservedly passionate, and touched with fantasy. In this most technically demanding of all violin concertos---the bow never leaves the strings for fifty minutes---Shaham took the music right over the top, lending it a sense of risk and adventure I'd never heard before. That performance left a deep and abiding impression; it also made me want to hear more of Shaham's recorded work: I had not a single disc of his at the time. What I discovered was a remarkable consistency. In each new work I listened to, I found the same virtues I had so admired in the Elgar: a passionate, youthful intensity, an absolutely secure technique that always served the music, originality of thought and imagination that made even the most familiar works sound newly minted.
Shaham is now devoting his considerable resources to an ambitious project: recording all of the major violin concertos written during the 1930's, of which this is the first installment. So just in case you happened to be wondering whatever in the world these five works were doing together, the knee-jerk response is that they were all written during that decade: the Stravinsky in 1932, the Berg in 1935, and the Hartmann, Britten, and Barber in 1939. What makes this project so fascinating is that Shaham has taken five different and very individual works and forced us to consider them in the same historical context. The classical works of the 1920's share a family resemblance---an upbeat, jazz-influenced insouciance---that reflects the optimism and exuberance of the period. But by the time most of these works were composed, the West had suffered an economic collapse that produced in its wake political instability, the rise of totalitarian movements, and the remorseless drift toward another catastrophic war. Is it too much to speculate that these concertos can best be understood as acts of protest? As Claire Delamarche says in her program notes, "All five composers shared an idealism that could have only emerged from a world in a state of collapse, like flowers blooming on a battlefield."
Certainly the two works that address that sense of foreboding most directly are the Hartmann and Britten concertos. Hartmann, best known for his eight remarkable symphonies, remained in Germany throughout the war, thought of himself as a "resister from within," and refused to let a note of his music be performed while the Nazis were still in power. The Concerto Funebre, probably his most often recorded score, was written to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The music is a compelling, highly volatile mix of defiance and despair. Those very same contradictory emotions govern the Britten concerto, and it too is laced with a draught of outright terror. In both works, Shaham fully communicates the sense of helplessness and disruption, Britten's bitter irony and Hartmann's defiance.
At first Barber's intimate and lyrical romanticism would seem far removed from any thoughts of war. In fact Barber was at a retreat in the Swiss Alps and already at work on the concerto in the summer of 1939 when he received a warning from the government to leave Europe immediately. On his way back to America the composer witnessed first hand the groundswell of panic that signaled the onset of the war. Certainly it's easy enough for a violinist to indulge the lush and irresistible beauties of Barber's melodies, especially in the first two movements, and many violinists are content to do exactly that. But Shaham, who's successfully recorded this work before with Andre Previn, gives the music a tense and dramatic edge, an urgency that suggests its historical moment. For once the final presto is more than just a bravura showpiece: for Shaham. It's a matter of life and death, a headlong rush of panic and desperation.
For me the two works that didn't seem to fit so neatly into Shaham's master plan are the Neoclassical Stravinsky and the Expressionistic Berg. In writing his D major concerto, Stravinsky aimed for a cool objectivity that excluded all but formal considerations. And Berg's narrative at first seems too deeply personal: the premature death from polio of the fifteen-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of his close friends Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Her mother described Manon as "a fairy tale being with a divine capacity for love and the creative power to express and to live it." Berg himself called her "an angelic gazelle from heaven." So both the frivolous Stravinsky and the deeply tragic Berg would at first seem ahistorical works. But Shaham lends the Stravinsky a subversive character, and plays it with an assertive, irreverent, nose-thumbing swagger that reminds me (in spirit, certainly not tone) of Shostakovitch at his most puckish and anti-authoritarian. And it's not hard to read the Berg as an elegy not just for a promising life cut tragically short, but for pre-war Vienna and an innocence the West would never experience again.
There's another intriguing feature of this project: rather than performing these five works in a studio setting with a single conductor and orchestra, Shaham has chosen to record them with three different conductors (Shaham himself in the Hartmann), five different orchestras on five separate live occasions. Was Shaham's plan to deliberately match the conductors and orchestras best suited to the individual scores---or did circumstance and programming considerations determine the pairings? The notes are mum on this subject. But in either case, he receives committed, exalted support from his partners. Robertson is an especially sympathetic presence in the Berg and the Barber; and in the Stravinsky, he matches Shaham stride for jaunty stride. The charismatic Juanjo Mena delves deeply into Britten's surreal orchestrations. Overall the sound is remarkably consistent given that the recordings took place in five different locations, each with acoustic properties of its own. If not quite demonstration quality, the production strikes a much more realistic and honest balance between soloist and orchestra than many recent studio efforts. The sound is also utterly transparent---even the smallest detail registers clearly---with a well-defined top and a resonant bottom end. You get all the excitement of a live performance without any compromise.
To summarize: here are five great (I'd say, definitive) performances of five important and compelling early 20th-Century repertory in excellent sound. This set belongs in every serious collection. What we're dealing with here is recorded history in the making. (A note: the live Shaham/Chicago Symphony performance of the Elgar concerto I referred to at the beginning of this review was recorded and is also available from Canary Classics. It's highly recommended to those who need convincing.)