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S & H Recital Review

Gil Shaham in London (III): Prokofiev, Bach, Paganini/Milone, Bernie/Milone, Piazzola/Milone, Milone, Monti/Milone Gil Shaham & Friends – Gil Shaham (vln), Adele Anthony (vln) and Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Wigmore Hall, 5th March 2004 (H-T W)


The American violinist Gil Shaham had been in town for two concerts with the Philharmonia under David Zinman. In between those events he gave an extended recital at the Wigmore Hall. On paper, the program looked fascinating, especially as it seemed that one would also have the rare chance to hear the brilliant young Tasmanian violinist Adele Anthony, whom I remember well from my visits to the Aspen Music Festival and who is married to Gil Shaham. Sadly, the whole concert turned out to be a fascinating Shaham-Show and more the kind of insider event for young violinists – there were at least two large orchestra string sections in the audience - than a musically fully rewarding evening for public consumption.

Never mind, it all started with a bang: the rarely performed Sonata for Violins in Unison in D, Op. 115 by Sergei Prokofiev. I had never come across this work before and was flabbergasted. Of course, violin ensembles are nowadays not that common any longer – even the world premiere, given by the violin class of the Moscow State Conservatoire, took place 17 years after Prokofiev’s death on the 10th March 1960. Having 12 violinists led by Gil Shaham, but without Adele Anthony, on the stage of the Wigmore Hall is unusual. The first impression of their sound was just magic – a big fanfare. The work in itself is modest and its melodies are monophonic. It belongs to Prokofiev’s classicist compositions; the first movement `moderato´ mirrors in its structure the classical Viennese tradition; the second movement `Andante dolce´ imprints Russian folk themes, while the last movement `Con brio´ reminds one of the finale of his G minor violin concerto. The idea for this piece is based on Soviet violin ensembles, which used to play solo compositions by Bach and others at festive occasions at the Bolshoi Theatre. The members of the Philharmonia showed a lot of spirit, but where certainly not always in unison. I would have preferred the New York based excellent Sejon Soloists, with whom Shaham has a close relationship.

Bach’s Partita No.2 in D minor BWV1004 for solo violin followed. Somehow, I expected Adele Anthony as the soloist, but on came Gil Shaham again. His playing was certainly extraordinarily beautiful, and contemporary in style with lots of vibrato. Despite this he produced a pianissimo sound, where necessary, I have rarely heard – Maxim Vengerov, excepted. Exactly a week before this concert Vengerov played the same work at the Barbican Hall – in a near historically correct performance - with slightly deeper tuning, no vibrato at all and using a baroque bow. Every note had been clearly audible without any resonance, whereas Gil Shaham’s playing produced so much resonance that the Chiaconne sounded like an orchestra with the clarity of Vengerov’s historical interpretation all but gone. As much as I admire Gil Shaham, in this case the Partita did not convince me.

After the interval Shaham gave us various styles and moods from works composed in the recent past - either for four violins with (or without) a double bass, or for 12 violins with double bass. All the works were arranged by Julian Milone, who had not been given any biographical note in the program, but to judge from the listing of the members of the Philharmonia he belongs to the second violin section. First came Paganini’s Caprice No.9 in E. Op.1 for four violins including (for the first time) Adele Anthony, a witty and sparkling arrangement, which showed off all four players, followed by "Sweet Georgia Brown"(1925) by Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey Sr. standing for the jazz-violin style of Stéphane Grappeli as well as Gershwin’s "Summer Time". Here, the same four players including a double bass took part, but it was already Adele Anthony’s last appearance.

Next came a four movement tango suite by Astor Piazzolla for the original 12 violinists and double bass, led by Gil Shaham – passionate and even sinister and atmospheric, but also pompous and too thickly orchestrated. With "En coulisses" Julian Milone contributed a world premier, an ironic piece, which should have had the players back stage tuning and practicing famous concertos and than coming on to the platform. Instead, everything happened there and, conducted by the composer, it all sounded a little bit like controlled chaos finishing with a gentle valse triste. The two final orchestrations, yet another fantasy on themes from Bizet’s "Carmen", also by Milone, and the Csárdás by the Italian Vittorio Monti (1868-1922), gave the players a lot to do, but both pieces were heavy handed and unsatisfactory. A Shostakovich encore brought the concert to an end. The violinists on stage and in the audience enjoyed themselves – and it was fun. Only the former arts minister David Mellor arrived late and left early – he is obviously not a fiddle player.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt


 

 


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