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1930s Violin Concertos – Volume 1
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto Op.14 (1939) [23:11]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ (1935) [27:29]
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
Concerto Funèbre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939) [20:19]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D major (1931) [21:39]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1939) [32:44]
Gil Shaham (violin)
New York Philharmonic/David Robertson (Barber); Staatskapelle Dresden/David Robertson (Berg); Sejong Soloists/Gil Shaham (Hartmann); BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson (Stravinsky); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (Britten)
rec. Barbican Centre, London, UK, 8 December 2008 (Stravinsky); Avery Fisher Hall, New York, USA, 25-27 February 2010 (Barber); Staatsoper Dresden, Germany, 13-15 June 2010 (Berg); Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, 1-3, 6 November 2012 (Britten); LeFrak Concert Hall, Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, New York, USA, 31 August-1 September 2013 (Hartmann)
CANARY CLASSICS CC12 [70:59 + 54:23]

Take one of the World’s great violinists, add a selection of its finest orchestras, a group of the finest string concertos of the last century, beautiful packaging and presentation and one would seem to have a certain winner. Given that I am a big fan of Gil Shaham it saddens me not to be able to give this beautiful two disc set an unequivocal reception.
 
There is a rather lazy critical response that tries to suggest that just about every significant piece of art from the 1930s somehow contains premonitions of the horrors to come – the greater the degree of premonition the greater the art – or so the critical shorthand would have you believe. One of the outstanding values of a set like this is that the listener can be his or her own judge. In fact, with the exception of the overtly politicised Hartmann - which undoubtedly benefits from the stark outrage and sorrow it expresses - all of these works rather enjoy staring at their own artistic navels. Certainly, you would be very hard-pressed to find anything except personal motivation behind the Barber, Berg or Stravinsky – marvellous works though each is. The Britten is the ‘darkest’ and largest of the works offered here but even that is the suffering of the self not greater mankind.
 
The album concept is wonderful; the 1930s was a remarkably fertile decade for concertos of all styles from the Second Viennese Berg to the Romantic Barber and the Objective Stravinsky. Certainly Shaham has the temperament and more importantly the technique to conquer these diverse but complex works. So why the relative disappointment? My main concern is the recorded perspective and the too-often functional accompaniments. Curiously, although all the recordings are taken from concerts and with different halls, producer/engineers — except Andrew Walton putting in a double shift on both the Barber and Britten as well as overall mastering engineer — and orchestras there is an oppressively dry sound with excessive close microphone balance. Shaham in particular ‘sits in your lap’ in a disconcerting way. Literally every breath – even during loud orchestral tuttis - is audible. Shaham’s playing can stand up to this microscopic close attention but it does not make for a pleasurable listening experience. Remarkably, even the Staatsoper in Dresden is made to sound two dimensional.
 
For some collectors, audience noise is an important issue so please note that there is some audible. In one concerto applause has been retained. Taking the concertos in the order they are presented; disc 1 opens with the unashamedly Romantic Barber concerto written for Iso Briselli. It is something of a shock to realise that Shaham’s previous recording with Previn and the LSO on DG is nearly twenty years old. That remains one of the top recommendations in the catalogue - coupled as it is with an equally fine rendition of the Korngold. Previn and Shaham seemed at one in their willingness to bring out the remarkable lyrical beauty of the work with a singly passionate account full of subtle nudges and ebbs and flows within the basic tempi. In the new performance here with conductor David Robertson — Shaham’s brother-in-law and preferred collaborator — a more objective and rigorous approach is favoured. Perhaps I am just too familiar with the ‘romantic’ approach but I find this rethink too rigid. The New York Philharmonic are not on their finest form – the moto perpetuo finale, written as a response to Briselli’s comment that the first two movements were ‘too easy’, finds them scrabbling around. The music ends up sounding frantic rather than energetic. So, the laurels to Shaham 1 for this work — or indeed the rather wonderful version from James Ehnes coupled with equally fine versions of both the Korngold and Walton concertos.
 
The Berg Concerto in Dresden would seem like a mouth-watering prospect. but again the close recording minimises the dynamic range. It does not allow instrumental textures to blend and reduces the essential genius of this work namely that it is a romantic concerto written using serial techniques. Take the very opening; the score is marked pp which on my system’s normal setting it does not sound. Add to this that sadly the very first phrase from the clarinet and harp are not perfectly together. Following a score of a concerto is often a disconcerting experience – certainly as far as indicated dynamics are concerned. I do wonder if the move towards live recordings exacerbates this. In concert the temptation for a soloist to ‘push’ dynamics is considerable and Shaham does this here. The second ‘movement’ is an allegretto marked scherzando and then later rustico and it has a rather nonchalant Viennese Ländler feel. The scherzando marking is central to this – an indication of mood not tempo. Shaham is disappointingly forceful and quite misses the rustic character. There is more humour and wit in this score than Shaham or Robertson seem willing to explore. As with the Barber, perhaps they are exploring the grimmer aspects of the pre-War artistic experience. Certainly Thomas Zehetmair on a bargain Warner Apex disc accompanied by Heinz Holliger and the Philharmonia — which also includes the Hartmann — is more alive to the impish character. Best of all in my limited comparison is Josef Suk on the classic version from Supraphon with Karel Ancerl. The Shaham/Robertson approach works well in the opening of the third movement Allegro – big forceful gestures powerfully despatched but again the following passage with a return to a ghostly recollection of Ländler-like material seems built bar to bar rather than the longer gesture. I’ve heard this passage described as ‘nightmarish lyricism’ – a quality not wholly evident here. As often in serial scores, the composer obsessively micro-manages note dynamics, lengths and articulations/attacks. Sadly the Dresden Staatskapelle rather generalise these with ff not noticeably more than f and fps sounding suspiciously like sfzs: the former should go loud/soft instantly – the latter is in effect an exaggerated accent.
 
The emergence of the Bach chorale in its original harmonisation is always an affecting moment and so it proves here. The Dresden clarinets sound suitably organ-like although Shaham’s vibrato-laden statement of the phrase Ich fahre sicher hinmit Frieden (I travel surely and in peace) – even though marked risoluto and poco f rather undermines the austere beauty of the moment. That being said the playing from here to the end is very beautiful – Shaham sustains a marvellous final (very) high G and the Dresden horns and trombones bring a rich warmth to the closing bars that is very moving. Although it says this is a live performance there is no applause.
 
The Hartmann Concerto Funèbre for violin and strings that completes this first disc is the least familiar concerto in the set. The instrumental balance here is significantly better with just a string group. The perspective of the soloist is much more natural and less oppressive. Coincidentally or not Shaham turns in a performance that is more lyrical and less forceful. Not that that means for a second that any emotional intensity is lost. This sounds to me is much more like the Shaham of other recordings – and all the better for that. He also directs the 23-strong Sejong Soloists. Both Zehetmair – mentioned earlier - and André Gertler with Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic use larger string groups which brings pluses and minuses. No small group can match a larger one’s weight of tone but conversely there is an agility and a sense of collective music-making an orchestra finds hard to equal. I rather like Zehetmair’s bleached tone in the opening Adagio but Shaham and his team are without equal in the third movement Allegro di molto. The otherwise excellent Gertler recording — which now sounds rather old in any case — is positively laboured here. The closing chorale makes for a fascinating comparison with Berg’s treatment of the same form. Again here Shaham’s sweet tone and effortless technique allows the music a serenity in the midst of its mourning which is very moving. That being said the extra tone provided by a larger string group such as that for Zehetmair means that the sustained string chords beneath the soloist’s unearthly musings are even more affecting, beautifully played as they are by the Sejong Soloists. It’s a wonderful piece that deserves far greater attention.
 
The Stravinsky Concerto opens the second disc and although the composer objected to the term ‘neo-classical’ if the glove fits….. Certainly by using baroque titles for the movements; Toccata, Arias I and II and Capriccio it seems very clear that as the liner puts it so well; “the concerto takes its place in his (Stravinsky’s) quest for an ‘objective’ style of music: leaning on the old masters as the support beams of a new modernity in response to the excesses of German post-Romanticism. A music based on purely technical and formal considerations, without needs of external message and devoid of psychological or descriptive content.” Again, a forensically close microphone balance is preferred but this works more in favour of the performer’s coolly direct approach. My comparison here is with the famous Decca recording from Kyung-Wha Chung with Previn and the LSO. Again, I feel humour is an essential element of the score and Previn can be relied to explore this facet to greater effect than Robertson directing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Conversely, it could be argued that Chung and Previn try to impose a degree of Romanticism that Stravinsky wanted studiously avoided. If pushed I would opt for Chung/Previn just because I find Robertson’s accompaniment just too literal and the Decca recording with the soloist set back in a more generous acoustic a less fatiguing experience.
 
With the centenary of Britten’s birth in 2013 there have been several new recordings of the wonderful early Violin Concerto and reissue of well-known older versions. All of which have reinforced its reputation – a point which its presence in this collection including Berg and Stravinsky proves. The orchestra here is the Boston Symphony under Juanjo Mena. The recording is still close but warmer and the confidently spiky virtuosity of the writing is meat and drink to Shaham. I have heard the orchestral accompaniment played with more brittle precision than here – this is the best sounding of the ‘larger’ concertos on the disc but there is a degree of languor in the first movement especially that I’m not sure suits a young man’s work. Shaham works hard to counteract this but I must admit to noticing passages of note-spinning that have not felt so obvious in other hands. That being said the central vivace is exciting and Shaham’s cadenza has the sense of fantasy that I enjoy about his playing at its considerable best.
 
As I have written before, at this time in his life, Britten seemed to reserve the Passacaglia form for some of his most personal and profound utterances. Although Mena gets committed playing from the Boston players, I do not find his pacing wholly convincing – too much too soon. Stravinsky would no doubt be appalled but I hear an extra-musical weight, a weary grandeur that eludes Mena. Shaham’s playing of the skittering passagework in this finale is little short of phenomenal but the return of the passacaglia material in the orchestra lacks the visceral impact it should for all the burnished beauty of the low Boston brass. Shaham’s poise in the final pages is a thing of wonder but I have a nagging sense than Mena is not yet quite inside the work – certainly his accompaniment does not reach anything like the imagination and insight of his soloist. Probably more than any other concerto I can currently think of, each time I return to this Britten concerto my sense that it is a truly great piece increases – mature beyond its composer’s years.
 
By now, readers will have noted a certain pattern; each performance here is good; with a player/musician as fine as Shaham how could it be anything else. However, when considered on a piece by piece basis it is very hard to feel that any individual performance – taking into consideration soloist, accompaniment and engineering - would supplant those in an existing collection or demand inclusion before others.
 
Canary Classics is Shaham’s own label and from the playright of the various concertos it would seem that he has in effect licensed these recordings from each orchestra.
 
The quality of the presentation cannot be praised too highly. The discs are presented in a double cardboard gatefold with a handsome booklet pasted to the inside front cover. This 37 page booklet is printed on high quality paper in English and French and includes good programme notes. I had never spotted Hartmann’s use of a Russian folksong used by Shostakovich in his 11th Symphony before it was noted here. There you will also find biographies, orchestral lists and numerous interesting photographs. Even the chosen fonts are attractive and appropriate. It is called volume 1 so it can be presumed that a second set is in the offing. Recording dates show that this is a project that has been developing for some considerable time and as such it serves as testimony to Shaham’s commitment and enduring skill.
 
I should say, that elsewhere this set has been highly praised on both technical and musical levels. For those who collect this violinist’s recordings there is much to admire. For those who do not require the ease of these five works collected in one place it is hard not to advise more judicious compiling from other sources.
 
Nick Barnard

Britten disacography & review index: Violin concerto



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