Ferdinand DAVID (1810-1873)
Violin Concerto No.4 in E Major Op.23 [26:13]
Violin Concerto No.5 in D Minor Op.35 [23:58]
Andante and Scherzo capriccioso Op.16 [9:20]
Hagai Shaham (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbyns
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 9-10 December 2009. Stereo. DDD
HYPERION CDA67807 [59:35]
The biographical parallels between Felix Mendelssohn and violin virtuoso Ferdinand David are astonishing. Both were born in Hamburg, David a year after the Mendelssohn, both into prosperous Jewish families, and amazingly, even in the same house. When Mendelssohn took over as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, he sent for David who became the leader of the orchestra, the latter retaining the post until long after his colleague's death. Mendelssohn turned to David for advice in all matters relating to the violin. Mendelssohn's concerto was written for him and its solo part benefited greatly from his advice and editing throughout the composition process.
No prizes then for guessing which famous concerto the works on this CD resemble. The stylistic gap between Mendelssohn and David is paper thin. More surprisingly, perhaps, the technical proficiency of the two composers is also comparable. These are works in which the violin always comes first, but David was no slouch when it came to writing orchestral textures. Mendelssohn's orchestra is perhaps a little more sophisticated, the counterpoint of his beloved Bach a constant influence on the way that voices interact. David is more inclined towards short snatches of obbligato accompaniment from solo woodwind instruments, or consummately structured pizzicato accompaniment textures from the string section. The woodwind in particular get an impressive look in, and you're never far from the Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream when they spin out their playful dances, especially in the finales of the two Concertos.
One area where you would expect Mendelssohn to win hands down is melody, but again David demonstrates that he really isn't that far behind. Sure, the tunes aren't as memorable, but they are long, gently flowing, and impeccably suited to the structural contexts into which each is placed. In general, the structure of these works is quite conventional, 'Classical' in the pejorative sense, but that is perfectly adequate for what the composer is setting out to do.
And what he is setting out to do is create vehicles for his own virtuosity. It is clear from every bar of the solo line that this is music written by a violinist who really knows what he is doing. It is not uncommon to find double, triple and even quadruple stopping in the solo parts of violin concertos, but the sheer quantity here is unusual, as is the subtlety with which it is added into the textures.
Given that the composer was both a virtuoso player and a proficient composer, it is difficult to decide if the solo part is as difficult to play as it sounds, but I'm inclined to think that it is. Nevertheless, Hagai Shaham pulls off that great virtuoso trick of making the music sound complex, but also making clear that he has every note under his fingers and that he is not sweating it. To non-violinist listeners, the greatest attraction of this music is its lyricism, and Shaham always brings this to the fore, especially in the exquisitely crafted middle movements. There is a slight grain to his tone which is not unattractive, in fact it creates an almost vocal quality to his lower register. There are some endearing inflections in his playing, tiny portamento slides, or delayed ornaments at the ends of phrases, no doubt the sort of things that David himself indulged in, and done with such taste and discretion that it is hard to complain.
Excellent playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who again demonstrate that they are a force to be reckoned with. No doubt years of performing Mendelssohn have set them up for this music, there are still plenty of new notes to learn though. I wonder if the 4th Concerto would benefit from a smaller string section, although the addition of trombones to the 5th makes their numbers just about right for that work. It is to the credit of soloist, conductor and orchestra alike that the synchronisation between them is faultless, especially in unfamiliar repertoire.
One for Mendelssohn fans then. Like so many great artists, he died before his time. It is gratifying, though, that his spirit lived on in Leipzig in the work of his colleagues. This music isn't quite up to the standards of Mendelssohn's mature music, but it really is close. As in Richard Strauss's famous description of his own status, Ferdinand David is not a first-rate composer, but he is a first-rate second-rate composer.
Gavin Dixon
Ferdinand David is not a first-rate composer, but he is a first-rate second-rate composer.