Gil Shaham: The Devil’s Fiddler

Gil Shaham
Seen and Heard Interview (UK)

By Marc Bridle

The devil and violinists have a long mutual history. From the first, Paganini, through to Wieniawski, Sarasate, Heifetz and, more recently, Milstein, Ricci and Perlman, critics and audiences have identified these Stradivarian masters, with their bows locking like horns, as something almost super-human. Gil Shaham, at the top of his profession for almost two decades, easily sits besides these supreme virtuosos of the violin. Indeed, in an album released on his former label Deutsche Grammophon, in 2000, Devil’s Dance, Shaham gave a tantalizing display of Faustian themed works by composers as disparate as Tartini, Bazzini, Brahms, Grieg and Sarasate as well as more recent works by John Williams and William Bolcom, two modern composers with whom Shaham has close working relationships. But the fascination with Shaham as a musician lies beyond the fact he can master the most taxing technical challenges; what he is also capable of, surprisingly rare among his generation of violinists, and, it should be said, from a student who studied with Dorothy DeLay, is a supreme artistry which affects his performances, from Bach and Berg through to Elgar, allied with a deeply considered musicianship. Perhaps it was not surprising that these three composers dominated our conversation for they are central to Shaham’s repertoire at this stage of his career.

The major orchestras have long circumvented the cash-strapped record labels for in-house recordings. But it is rare for a soloist of Gil Shaham’s stature to have also gone along this route; he did so when he was inexplicably dropped by DG and set up Canary Classics. We meet at the London office of Knifedge, the company which promotes and markets his discs, the latest of which is a 100th anniversary tribute to Pablo de Sarasate who died in 1908 (the disc was recorded at Valladolid in Spain last November but was released this autumn). In terms of his concert and recital performances the theme for the autumn and winter through 2009/10 is solo Bach and concertos from the 1930s, two of which he will playing in London, the Berg and the Walton, concertos written three years apart (1935 and 1938/9 respectively) but hugely different in style and temperament. The programming is symptomatic of Shaham’s progressive thinking in offering strikingly different works as the focal point of his developing artistry.

The first of his autumn London engagements was at the Wigmore Hall playing Bach. I ask him about the hall, when he last played there and what he thinks of its acoustics. “I last played here about five or six years ago, in a recital with Akira Eguchi. I love the hall, especially its acoustics which are so warm for the violin. I also love the smallness of the hall and how you can feel so intimate with the audience. It’s one of my favourite halls anywhere. Concert halls, especially in New York, are usually bigger, but what makes the Wigmore so special is its personality. It’s not just about the sound it’s also the character. The thing about the Wigmore is that it has this incredible tradition. Every year you walk past it and you see what the season is going to be, and it’s just such a privilege to play there”.

As with so many great violinists (notably one of his mentors, Itzhak Perlman) Bach has come quite late to Shaham, especially in live recital. The six Sonatas and Partitas remain the summit which any violinist must climb, but their acute technical and interpretative problems often take a lifetime to master. His Wigmore Hall recital contains just three of the works – the Partita No.3 in E BWV1006, the Sonata No.2 in A minor BWV1003 and the Partita No.2 in D minor BWV1004. The choice is carefully considered – the partitas framing the sonata, the freer format of the E and D minor works contrasting with the more formal structure of the A minor. As Shaham says, “I’ve been putting the works in my programmes over the past two years. I grew up playing the Sonatas and Partitas, studying them, but I was always worried about playing them in public. About four years ago I decided to start studying them again; I figured if I don’t start playing them now then I never will and I won’t get any better at playing them. I’ve been adding a new one every year since but I don’t have any plans yet to record the works. Maybe five years, maybe ten years. This is my first season playing an all Bach programme – in fact, I started last month (September, 2009) at a school fundraiser at home in New York. They’re amazing pieces, and I shall be playing them more and more over the next few years. This music is just amazing; it’s like when I start playing them I have a hard time walking away from them. I find myself going back and back and just enjoy them”.

In an increasingly HIP music world the question of authenticity in Bach performance usually rears its head. “I feel that this music transcends time, that’s really why we all love it so much. And I think that we have learnt a lot from the historically informed performances – about the style and the playing. But for me playing this music has always been about the spirit of the music. I love performances that I have heard on marimba, for example. But I feel that with a great work of art, a great masterpiece, you can look at it from so many angles. I’ve learnt something from each one and admire something from every angle. But I guess some of the choices I make when I play these works must have something to do with having studied something about them from the historical perspective. I think I learnt a lot from studying the works of Frescobaldi, Biber and Pachabel which served to help me understand Bach. I have tried to play these pieces on a Baroque bow because I wanted to at least learn from it. At first I thought that I would actually perform with it because you can do pretty much anything with a Baroque bow that you can do with a modern bow, and pretty much vice versa too. But I think it becomes a question of arguing that it is much easier to do certain things with one type of bow and some with the other; in the end I decided to do it using my Tourte bow. I feel I have that much more control over it.”

When we come to talk about those violinists who have influenced his Bach playing the list is extensive. Ironically, he doesn’t mention the one violinist whom he most resembles, Mischa Elman. Elman, a star violinist before Jascha Heifetz, but soon overshadowed by him, was known principally for the astonishing tonal range he deployed, a sound that reminds one of the epic, Cathedral-like tone Stokowski alone could pull from any orchestra he conducted. I was reminded of the Elman comparison again when I heard his Bach recital – the astonishing power of the low strings, the judicious but deep vibrato, the bloom and yet, oddly, this sounded very much like Bach. (Physically, Shaham is a world away from the short Elman, and his fingers are longer.)

“There are so many performances, so many, that are great, and even if I made a list I think I would leave out some amazing ones. From Heifetz, Grumiaux, Szeryng, Oscar Shumsky to Itzhak Perlman to Sergiu Luca, who first performed Bach historically, to Andrew Manze. The thing about this music is that we all feel so strongly about it, we grew up with it, it grows up in the back of your mind and you end up inhabiting it. There is a whole universe out there, and you can learn from everyone. When I was a kid I went to a violin shop in New York – the guys name was Rene Morel – and he said to me – remember I was just a kid – ‘ah, you are going to be a very good violinist, I can tell, because you listen to everybody and learn from everybody’. And, of course, he said that when I wasn’t listening! But there was a lot of truth in what he said.”

Moving on from Bach, we discuss the two greatest concertos written in the last century, those of Elgar and Berg. I first heard Gil Shaham play the Elgar with the Philharmonia Orchestra and David Zinman some years ago, and since then have heard him in the same work with the Pittsburgh and Chicago Symphony Orchestras and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Every performance has been exceptional. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, his recording on Canary Classics with the CSO and Zinman (from a live performance) sweeping the board, though it owes more than a little debt to the underrated Perlman recording with Barenboim. Tim Parry, for Musicweb, described the performance as “the most passionate and intense I have heard in years… Gil Shaham is the perfect soloist for Elgar’s sprawling Romantic concerto. A supreme technician, he is also a wonderfully soulful artist”. BBC Music Magazine described the performance as having “some real marvels: the cello-like tone on the G string, the supremely hushed first expounding of the second subject, the way the final cadenza blows about in the breeze”.

He has been playing the Elgar for at least fifteen years. “I did not learn this piece when I was at school and by the time I was in my twenties I had heard a lot of people speak of this work. People would say to me, ‘the Elgar concerto is my favourite concerto’ or ‘Elgar, that is the best violin concerto’ and finally it was David Zinman, and Mary Zinman, his wife, who said, ‘Gil, we have to do the Elgar’. So, I had to start learning the work – and it is such a big score to tackle – and then became totally obsessed with it. I’m completely won over by the work and tease my ‘cellist friends who play the Elgar Cello Concerto – which may be slightly more often played and better known – by saying that the Violin Concerto is such a bigger statement and such an amazing work.” David Zinman has most often been his conductor for this concerto (although Leonard Slatkin has also conducted Shaham in the work). “David is such a great conductor of this work. When we did it in Berlin it was quite a new piece for the orchestra to play. A lot of the players said well if the Philharmonia can do it, and the entire violin section can play the solo part then it’s time for us to play the work. And with David I thought the performance with the orchestra was very free. But we get to the point when we play this work together with orchestras and the performance is different every night. We’ve been playing the work together for thirteen years or something.” Indeed, the relationship between soloist and conductor is so symbiotic in this work that it is hard to imagine Shaham playing the work with others. “I did do it with Leonard Slatkin in Pittsburgh which was quite different, but it’s one of those pieces that’s so huge and difficult you have to find a conductor who loves it and wants to do it. It’s amazing because in my mind I think of Bach and Elgar as two violinist-composers.” Many of Gil Shaham’s first recordings with Deutsche Grammophon were done in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Giuseppe Sinopoli. The question is theoretical, but I ask Shaham if he would have liked to have played the Elgar with Sinopoli. “He was an incredible man, and he was always interesting, always interesting. It was wonderful doing things with him and, yes, I’d have loved to have done the Elgar with him – actually, I’d have played pretty much anything with him.”

Another work which Shaham has yet to tackle on CD is Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. “Yes, I haven’t recorded it. There is such a great progression from the Beethoven through to the Brahms and the Elgar, but I’d love to record it, though there are no plans at the moment.” I mention that tempo-wise there is a tendency nowadays for violinists to take the opening Allegro ma non troppo much slower than usual. “Maybe I’m going through a phase, but my feeling is that the first movement should be played faster. I think the writing is in many places alla breve (Gil hums the ‘cello theme) and it is the same rhythm for the solo part and it really feels to me that it should be played slighter faster.” In contrast to these great Romantic concertos, one work which Shaham has taken up recently is the concerto by Aram Khachaturian. Given that Shaham has already recorded the Myaskovsky concerto, which dates from 1938, two years earlier than Khachaturian’s concerto, perhaps its inclusion in his repertoire is not that surprising. “I grew up with this piece and always loved it, but had never performed it. A few years back I started studying it – I had grown up with David Oistrakh’s great recording of the work. I find it to be a beautiful piece, very inspired and very artfully written. People seem to be in two minds about the concerto but I think once flutists start playing your violin concerto then it’s time to start playing it.”

As part of Gil Shaham’s 1930’s concerto series he is playing Alban Berg’s violin concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas on 5 November. Like the Elgar, this is a concerto that is coming full circle for him. I mention to Shaham Karajan’s description of feeling complete and utter exhaustion after playing Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces and ask him if this concerto in particular leaves him feeling anything close to that. “It really is the most incredible journey. I feel that that piece – whether you hear it or whether you play it – can make you feel very emotional. This concerto for me has a lot to do with Michael Tilson Thomas who some twenty years ago said, ‘Gil, when are you going to play the Berg concerto?’ I let it pass for a couple of years and then about fifteen years ago we decided to do it. I spent a lot of time with Michael going over the score and studying it, reading all the articles and books about it – you know the Cambridge Study book – and then we performed it for the first time in Miami with the New World Symphony, then in San Francisco and then we took it touring. It is an incredible piece and there is this feeling about it. We play two Berg pieces together – this one and the Kammerkonzert – and I think what Karajan said is definitely true. These are emotionally draining pieces. But satisfying too.”

The Berg concerto, of course, stemmed from a commission from Louis Krasner and I ask Gil Shaham if he is commissioning new works for the violin. “Right now I am in discussions with two composers about commissioning – I can’t really tell you who, I can tell you off the record, but we can’t print anything – but this summer I played Bill Bolcom’s Violin Concerto. I love his writing and spent a lot of time with him. Last year I premiered a Marc-Andre Dalbavie piece – a piano trio, which I thought was spectacular. It’s a very strong piece. I’ve been proud of my collaboration with composer John Williams. I was happy to play his revised version of the Violin Concerto as well as premiering his new works – like Treesong, and a short piece called Devil’s Dance for violin and piano. I’m happy to see other violinists play these pieces too, and I’m happy to see that other violinists are playing the works of my friend Julian Milone (second violinist with the Philharmonia Orchestra). He’s an arranger as well as a composer and it’s nice to see people playing things like his arrangement for four violins and double bass as well as original works like his Dicken’s Suite. I always find it fun and fascinating to work with a living composer, and to create a new work. But I also feel I have been very lucky in my life in that I have not been typecast. People hire me to play Bach and people hire me to play Brahms and Elgar and Berg and… Bill Bolcom.”

Gil Shaham may have been born to scientists – his father was an astrophysicist, his mother a cytogeneticist – but in New York it is music that dominates both his professional and personal life. He is married to the violinist Adele Anthony who plays three of the works on their most recent disc, Sarasate, Virtuoso Violin Works (they are the duetting couple in Navarra for 2 violins, Op.33). As I leave he asks me if I have seen the promotional video that they filmed to coincide with the release of the Sarasate CD, Gil run Gil. As they run around New York, filming at a frenetic pace – it’s a kind of chicken run to the music of Sarasate – I’m reminded of the man who at a Seattle recital came back stage and told Shaham that until that concert he had forgotten just how good a composer Sarasate was. This surely is the genius behind Gil Shaham – an artist with the ability to make us completely rethink what we are listening to.