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S & H Concert Review

Gil Shaham in London (II): Adams, Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Gil Shaham (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, David Zinman, RFH, 7th March 2004 (MB)

Gil Shaham’s second concert with the Philharmonia (there will now unexpectedly be a third when he appears as soloist next Saturday in Beethoven’s violin concerto) was everything it should have been – and more. A long-time advocate of Samuel Barber’s exquisite violin concerto (though in this instance he played with a score), he gave the kind of sumptuous performance perhaps only Shaham is capable of delivering. To this day, he remains the most individual sounding violinist to come from that boiler-house of DeLay/Juilliard teaching; at times during his performance he brought a sound to his violin that made him sound close to Mischa Elman, the most distinctively toned violinist of the last century.

Barber’s violin concerto is unusual in that it keeps entirely separate its unusual juxtaposition of lyricism and virtuosity; Shaham’s performance of it, whilst effortless in the moto perpetuo final movement, laid claims to greatness in the way that he moulded the most breathtakingly expressive lines in the preceding movements. One of the advantages of hearing his performance in the concert hall was that the balance between soloist and orchestra came across as more naturally placed than it does on his LSO recording of the work; how wonderful to hear how vividly Barber integrates the solo part within orchestral textures and how plaintively the principal melody of the second movement rises first on an oboe and then on a cello, clarinet, violins and horn before the soloist’s magical entry. If Shaham was almost upstaged by Christopher Cowie’s sublime oboe playing it wasn’t to be as Shaham unleashed a dewy and melancholic sheath of sound that was as impassioned as it was warmly toned. Although Shaham’s tone is already big (and effortlessly big) he produces the most stunning breadth of sound on the G string and on the E string brings a wider vibrato to his playing than is usual. The panache he brought to the final movement – mostly written for page after page in triplets – brought with it a lighter tone yet it all remained festooned with a delicacy of touch that was enchanting. His double-stopping – so fearlessly precise – was matched in articulacy by the sudden shift from triplets to semiquavers in the work’s final bars.

Throughout, the Philharmonia’s playing was impeccable – as it was during the rest of the concert. Beginning with Adams’ ‘The Chairman Dances’ from his opera Nixon in China the orchestral playing was never less than precise, even if Adams’ proto-minimalism seemed less inventive today than when I first heard it in the opera house. But David Zinman encouraged the orchestra to play with flair – not least the superlative woodwind section, in a busy afternoon for them. Also brilliantly played was Copland’s Appalachian Spring – though it remains a rather bland work, even when as evocatively delivered as it was here.

Quite in a different league was the Philharmonia’s performance of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here we had an orchestra revelling in Bernstein’s virtuosic showpiece – even clicking their fingers when required to do so – and enjoying every minute of it. The virile drama of this score has rarely been so evocatively displayed as it was here – eruptive violence in the prologue (along with some really authentic sounding jazz rhythms), melodious – and soaring - string lines in ‘Somewhere’, a testosterone drenched ‘Mambo’ and a truly skittish ‘Rumble’ that was as brutalised as it was tragic. Indeed, the superlative percussion playing in ‘Rumble’ might just well be the highlight of a concert was outstandingly delivered in every way.

Marc Bridle




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