Gil Shaham’s Snapshot of a Decade

There’s an advantage to running your own record label — it’s easier to do the projects that you really believe in. In this case, Gil Shaham is the owner/operator of Canary Classics, and the project is a survey of violin concertos of the 1930’s.

Just the lineup of composers for this first volume show how rich this decade was: Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Karl Amadeus Harmann, and Igor Stravinsky all wrote violin concertos in the 1930’s.

This 2-CD set brings together recordings of Shaham performing in different venues with different forces, so there’s a little unevenness in the sound. But not in the performances themselves. Shaham plays every work with insight and conviction.
Shaham’s rendition of Berg’s Violin Concerto brings out the emotion suggested by the subtitle “To the Memory of an Angel.” He highlights the romantic expressiveness of the work, letting the dodecaphonic structure fade far into the background. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is played with dryness and acerbic wit, while Britten’s youthful Op. 15 concerto revels in its more somber tone and thicker harmonies.

For me, the two standouts (and that’s a relative term) were the Hartmann “Concerto funebre” and Samuel Barber’s violin concerto. Hartmann’s work reflects the deep dispair this anti-fascist composer felt living in the heart of Nazi Germany. Shaham both plays and conducts, making this a very intimate reading. The pathos expressed is heart-breaking, and Shaham delivers it with the sensitivity it deserves.

The opening work is Barber’s violin concerto, recorded in a live performance. David Robinson and the New York Philharmonic make this richly romantic work positively luminescent. Shaham sings through his violin, taking full advantage of Barber’s lyrical music. The energy in the final movement is almost palpable, and the enthusiastic response is well-deserved.

An excellent start to an important series. I look forward to volume 2!

1930s Violin Concertos, Vol 1
Gil Shaham, violin; David Robinson, Juanjo Mena, conductors; New York Philharmonic; Staatskapelle Dresden; Sejong Soloists; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Boston Symphony Orchestra
Canary Classics

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