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