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John WILLIAMS (b.1932)
Treesong (2000)

Dreamily. "Doctor Hu and the Metasequoia"
Twice as fast – Deciso. "Trunks, Branches and Leaves"
Tempo Primo. "The Tree Sings"
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1974-76, rev. 1998)
In memory of B.R.W.

Moderato
Slowly (in peaceful contemplation)
Broadly (Maestoso) - Quickly
Three Pieces from "Schindler’s List" (1993)

Theme. Lente
Jewish Town (Kraków Ghetto – Winter ’41). Andante
Remembrances. Andante
Gil Shaham, Violin
Boston Symphony Orchestra/John Williams
Recorded: Boston Symphony Hall, USA, 1999-2000
DG CD 471 326-2 [66:05]

This, the most recent Gil Shaham-John Williams collaboration, is a quite outstanding disc. Shaham's lyrical clarity of tone, near-faultless intonation, and beautifully expressive phrasing define him as one of the most noteworthy violinists of his generation; meanwhile, long-term collaborators John Williams and the Boston Symphony Orchestra understand each other so intimately that they bring subtlety to every finest detail of Williams' music.

This is the premiere recording of Treesong, a mystical tone-poem that exploits the many evocative qualities of the violin. It is, rather endearingly, inspired by a rare Chinese Dawn Redwood tree, or to be specific, one standing in Boston Public Garden that Williams admired for many years, before coincidentally meeting the scientist who planted it, Shiu-Ying Hu. 'The piece doesn't aspire to "describe" the tree per se', writes Williams, 'but it does attempt, in my mind at least, to connect, to the degree possible, the great beauty and dignity of this magnificent conifer with the elegance and grace of Gil Shaham and his art'. It succeeds, eloquently.

In the first movement, "Doctor Hu and the Metasequoia", the almost continuous violin line weaves about dreamily whilst Shaham's crystal clear tone slices through the hazy orchestral textures that first surround him. Later, string chords and harmonics abound, creating a shimmering orchestral backdrop that is hauntingly reminiscent of an imposing forest canopy or 'the twilit interior of a forest', as Williams himself describes it.

Treesong's second movement is a more graphic representation of the tree's growth. The fast, energetic writing sees a more active role for the orchestra, and the tree's 'Branches, leaves and trunks' are intimately depicted. The lyrical violin cadenza between second and third movements (and written by the composer) recaptures the dreamy, lyrical character of the beginning. The third movement, 'The Tree Sings', sees a new richness in both soloist and orchestra, and once again the different colours and tints in Williams' orchestration contribute towards the descriptive effects of the work. The overall structure of Treesong is therefore an inverted concerto form (slow-fast-slow), which adds further to its curious unique quality.

Interestingly, Treesong's textures and climactic passages share much of their orchestral complexity and detail with Williams' film music, yet not once does Williams sacrifice the integrity of the modern classical style. He never ‘dumbs down’ to the simpler melodic accessibility of some of his film music (with the obvious exception of Schindler's list, written expressly in that genre!), and a marked difference between his classical and film styles gradually becomes apparent.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is noticeably more 20th century in style; Bartók, Prokofiev and Walton are cited as major influences, and the work itself demonstrates Williams' accomplished understanding of modern symphonic writing. Juxtapositions of lyrical themes with virtuosic motifs abound, expertly emphasised by Gil Shaham; his trademark lyricism and first-class virtuosic security is a powerful combination, but also a necessity for this concerto. The contemplative second movement is followed by a thrilling finale that is again crisp and articulate. Although the solo writing is fiendish in parts, Shaham's intonation remains faultless throughout.

Three Pieces from "Schindler's List" is a cleverly chosen lollipop with which to end the programme. The most instantly accessible music on the disc, it hints at Williams' film-music style, and makes one realise just how much of a musical chameleon he can be in terms of compositional scope. Even without ever having seen the film itself, it is easy to perceive the grim truths that Williams’ haunting melodies spell out. Throughout, the silky Shaham sound is always present, full of interest and beauty. Shaham is undoubtedly one of the very top violinists of the post-Perlman/Zuckerman generation, and these performances will only enhance his reputation further.

I will go so far as to say this could be a landmark disc. Because of his near-fusion of elements from both classical and film music genres Williams’ writing style is a very progressive form of the classical genre, and it is innovators such as he who push repertoire boundaries forward. It would be unsurprising if Treesong and the Concerto eventually end up as standard violin repertoire; this disc will go some way towards making this happen.

Simon Hewitt Jones


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