Norman Lebrecht Album of the Week

Gil Shaham
Sinfini Music

Gil Shaham's survey of violin concertos from the 1930s pairs the familiar with the fringe, with works by composers with varying degrees of political awareness, says Norman Lebrecht.

By Norman Lebrecht

As the skies darkened, composers wrote violin concertos. The 1930s, which saw the rise of Hitler, Stalin’s massacres, the Spanish Civil War and the displacement of millions of innocents, yielded a resurgence of violin concertos so timely and intense that it must have been more than coincidence. The virtuoso Gil Shaham is collating some 18 concertos of the decade in a live-performance series on his own label.

Not all concertos are created equal. Samuel Barber’s, which opens this set, is sweet – too sweet to have been written during the German invasion of Poland. The composer’s wilful myopia and tune-stocked willingness to please render the work a harmless anachronism, brilliantly played and utterly superficial.

Alban Berg’s concerto, written in the year he died, 1935, mourns the death of Alma Mahler’s daughter, Manon, and, one by one, Vienna’s creative freedoms. That same year, in Munich, Karl Amadeus Hartmann was writing a Concerto funèbre for violin and string orchestra that he refused to have played under Nazi rule. Each of these works is a milestone in time; Hartmann’s, fabulously delivered by Shaham and a Korean ensemble, is a near-masterpiece by an undervalued composer.The remaining concertos here are Britten’s and Stravinsky’s, both more switched-out than switched-on, although Britten, just 25 in 1939, admits intimations of the ominous. Shaham performs with top orchestras – New York Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle, Boston Symphony and BBC – and in excellent sound. His series promises to be an essential adjunct to our understanding of the era.