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S & H Concert Review

Shaham in London (I): Barber, Elgar, Brahms; Gil Shaham (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra; David Zinman (conductor); RFH, 4th March 2004 (AR)

This Philharmonia ‘safe’ programme of concert classics opened with a pristine performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – his most popular and often-performed work. Delivered with a profundity which lent the work even more dignity and pathos than usual, the Philharmonia strings wisely avoided the pitfall of saccharine sound, and David Zinman conducted the elegiac score with reserve and refinement.

The internationally acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham gave an extraordinarily sensitive and subtle interpretation of Sir Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61. His purity of tone and poetic phrasing were reminiscent of the celebrated recording made by the 16 year old Menuhin under the direction of the composer.

In the Allegro, Shaham’s assured playing allowed the music to glow and flow with seemingly effortless ease: the notes were crisply delivered, devoid of slurring. Zinman was a perfect, intuitive partner for his soloist and produced expressive, dramatic playing from his forces, particularly from the visceral brass. There was a wonderful vulnerability, almost shyness in his playing of the Andante, as if he was reluctant to let go of the notes, his cool reserve making the music sound all the more poignant; again the Philharmonia accompanied him with sensitive and alert playing.

In the opening passages of the Allegro molto, he switched mood dramatically, playing with an elegant muscularity, giving the notes a refreshing ruggedness, his body movements seeming to hurl the notes at the rapt audience. In the scintillating cadenza, the Philharmonia strings’ pizzicato tremolando served as a carpet of fluttering butterfly wings for Gilman’s glittering, razor-sharp tone which sounded like shards of silver light: this was simply sublime playing from both soloist and orchestra.

Zinman gave a dramatically taut and perfectly structured interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68. It is very rare to hear such a disciplined performance of this highly emotive, quasi-romantic score, which does tend to bring out the worst of conductors’ whimsical mannerisms, speeding up and slowing down tempi to make effect. Zinman, however, kept a tight control, rigorously judging the tempi from beginning to end.

The opening was solid and stern, with Andrew Smith’s timpani having weight and authority (as was the case throughout). But Zinman did not emphasise architecture at the expense of drama, coaxing the Philharmonia to play with great verve and urgency, creating an exciting nervous tension. The orchestral textures were perfectly balanced with all the players shining through.

The Andante sostenuto was conducted with fluent buoyancy, with warmly focused woodwind sensitively floated in a sea of mellow strings, whose pizzicato opening of the Adagio closing movement had a distilled eeriness. From here on Zinman’s rock steady tempi and unerring control gave the music a sense of noble grandeur, with the closing passages having a particularly powerful and direct intensity. This strong, direct performance was reminiscent of Toscanini’s 1952 Philharmonia RFH performance with its total grasp of the score’s structure and dynamic.

Zinman seems to be a perfect partner for the Philharmonia, who applauded him as warmly as the audience

Alex Russell




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