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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor (1910) [48:28]
Gil Shaham (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. live, 1, 3 February 2007, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

This recording was recently reviewed very enthusiastically by my colleague, Tim Perry in its download format. Readers will notice that the heading to Tim's review suggests he heard a different performance, given in Miami, but we now think that he was misled by packaging information relating to the download and that, in fact, the performances are one and the same. It's confusing, for example, that the booklet illustrations are of the Miami concert performance given by these artists on 13 February 2007

Shaham and Zinman toured their reading of the Elgar concerto around North America and to London and Berlin at the time that this recording was captured. I don't know at what stage in the tour the performances from which this recording was edited took place but the reading sounds to be settled and 'run in'.

To get straight to the point, this is a very fine rendition of the concerto. Is there a concerto in the repertoire that is as subtle and as nuanced yet, at times, so noble and impassioned as the Elgar? It seems to me that Shaham has the measure of all these aspects of the work and, of course, the technical armoury to enable him to surmount its manifold difficulties with ease. In the first movement I was most impressed with the way he delivers the many filigree passages as flights of fancy. Just as impressive, however, are the reserves on which he's able to draw in order to do justice to the Big Moments. He keeps the music on the move and he's less inclined to ruminate than, say, Nigel Kennedy in his first and very fine traversal of the work (EMI). Tim Perry rightly draws attention to Shaham's very first entry. This is often a crucial foretaste of the interpretation to follow, as is the case here, I think. I'm quite not sure I'd describe Shaham's entry as 'quietly understated' as Tim does but it's certainly not as strongly projected as Kennedy's nor, indeed, as that of Hugh Bean, a Sammons pupil, on his still under-appreciated 1972 version.

The whole first movement is a delight in this recording and I can't better Tim Perry's description of the playing. As he notes, Shaham 'shapes each phrase of the solo line with care and imaginative flair - now quietly ruminative, now longing, now triumphantly extrovert.'

He's equally successful in the radiant slow movement, where his playing is consistently delicate and poised. This is a beautifully proportioned reading, excellently supported by Zinman and the orchestra. Shaham's violin soars and sings beautifully and with lyrical grace. He never seeks to milk the music but, on the other hand, he doesn't play down the emotional content.

The quicksilver music in the finale is dispatched effortlessly. There's virtuosity aplenty here but the more reflective passages - of which there are more than a few - find Shaham just as responsive to Elgar's requirements. One such example is the few bars after 10:02, where the wistful, elegiac quality of his playing strikes me as just right. The following cadenza is not just marvellously played but superbly judged from an interpretative standpoint.

Though the focus in a concerto is inevitably on the soloist, the Elgar concerto is one of those in which the orchestra's role is crucial to success. Lucky the soloist who has the backing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! Their playing for Shaham is superb, both collectively and, in the case of the principals, individually. Without quite effacing memories of Vernon Handley's conducting for Kennedy - which combined sweep, attention to detail and an innate understanding of Elgar style - David Zinman proves himself to be an alert, sympathetic and stylish accompanist. He has clearly forged a most effective and collaborative partnership with his soloist.

The performance is captured in good, clear sound. The soloist is forwardly placed - though not aggressively so - though I slightly prefer the more integrated balance of the Kennedy recording, though that was made under studio conditions, of course. The audience is commendably silent - until the ovation at the end - and although the recording picks up a few instances of what I take to be foot stamping by Shaham, these are not in any way intrusive. The excellent and authoritative notes are by Andrew Neill, the recently retired Chairman of the Elgar Society.

The catalogue contains many fine versions of this marvellous concerto. However this splendid recording by Gil Shaham now joins the shortlist of top recommendations.

John Quinn

see also review by Tim Perry



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