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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor (1910) [48:28]
Gil Shaham (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. live, 13 February 2007, Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, Miami. DDD


Experience Classicsonline

This live recording documents the most passionate and intense reading of Elgarís marvellous concerto I have heard in recent years.

Gil Shaham is a perfect soloist for Elgarís sprawling Romantic concerto. A supreme technician, he is also a wonderfully soulful artist. Both qualities are amply demonstrated in his numerous recordings, and especially in his readings of the Brahms concerto. That Deutsche Grammophon ever let him go is a scandal. 

Fortunately for lovers of fine violin playing, Shaham has set up his own label and continues to issue recordings of repertoire he cares about. Though it comes uncoupled, this recording of the Elgar concerto is more than worth the modest asking price of the Canary Classics disc. 

Shahamís first entry after the orchestral ritornello is quietly understated, but engagingly inflected. He shapes each phrase of the solo line with care and imaginative flair Ė now quietly ruminative, now longing, now triumphantly extrovert. Simple passages that link thematic fragments take on new meaning under his bow. The slow movement in particular is marvellous, Shaham enchanting with the delicacy of his bowing, finely graded pianissimo and ravishing lyrical outpourings. There are a couple of rhetorical stretchings of note lengths in the finale that may bother some, but his virtuosic despatch of the movementís fireworks is breathtaking and the cadenza flows naturally like an inner monologue. Always there is sincerity and feeling behind the notes. 

Zinman and the Chicago Symphony are fantastic partners. Zinmanís care for balances ensures a transparency of sound that allows Elgarís striking orchestration to be heard to best advantage. Solo contributions from winds and horns are superb, a testament to the virtuosity of this fine orchestra. The climaxes have plenty of heft and the orchestra is capable of the utmost delicacy too, as in the opening of the slow movement. 

In some ways this recording reminds me of Perlman's underrated performance on Deutsche Grammophon, with Barenboim at the head of the same orchestra. The performance is similarly conceived and Shaham and Zinman take only seconds more than Perlman and Barenboim in each movement. If anything, Shahamís is the better performance, for the greater shading of the violin line, and Zinmanís more transparent view of the score, though the DG recording has the greater overall feeling of Romantic opulence. Like Nigel Kennedy, Shaham gets to the heart of this concerto, but takes less languorous tempi in doing so. 

Perhaps the more apposite comparison is between Shahamís live recording and James Ehnesí recording, also live, with the Philharmonia under Sir Andrew Davis. Ehnesí disc won a 2008 Gramophone Award and has been praised by Ian Lace among others. Ehnes' recording is wonderful - there is no denying it. His tone is consistently centred and full, and his virtuosity is supreme. But so is Shahamís and, deploying a greater variety of tone, he brings to the concerto an emotional dimension that is lacking in Ehnesí performance. Ehnesí performance is clear-eyed and unsentimental but the solo line is supported by an emotionally charged Philharmonia under Davis. By contrast, on this disc Shaham takes the emotional lead, and finds sympathy on the podium and among the ranks of the Chicago Symphony. Both accounts are similarly paced, though Shahamís seems to me to have greater forward momentum, perhaps because of its emotional intensity. Elgarians are fortunate to witness the appearance of two excellent recordings of the violin concerto in the space of 12 months. Both are fine performances, but Shahamís vulnerability and ebullience make his the recording I shall return to more often. 

I downloaded this recording from emusic and although this makes it impossible for me to comment definitively on the sound of the CD, the compressed sound of the mp3 files is natural and well balanced. Audience noise is hardly discernable Ė except for the rapturous applause that erupts at the performanceís close. 

If you have never responded to Elgarís concerto before, this is the account that might just sway you. Shahamís disc belongs with Nigel Kennedyís collaboration with Handley at the head of the list of stereo recordings of this masterpiece. Do not miss this.

Tim Perry


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