Five concertos that capture the Zeitgeist of a troubled decade

Gil Shaham
Limelight Magazine

By Greg Keane

What an inspired idea! To capture the Zeitgeist of a troubled decade through the medium of a musical genre: in this case, the violin concerto. Gil Shaham explores violin concertos of the 1930s in Volume 1 of a series which contains works by Barber, Stravinsky, Britten, Berg and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, by far the least known of the group.

A confirmed socialist, Hartmann was one of the few genuinely anti-Nazi figures in German music throughout the Third Reich and refused to allow his music to be performed there. I’d always considered what little music I’d heard of Hartmann (1905-1963) very difficult, however, this is a real discovery and Gil Shaham makes his Concerto Funèbre into a highly moving threnody, meditation and evocation of the horrors of war, using sources as disparate as a Hussite (Czech protestant) hymn and a Russian revolutionary song bookending an adagio and a Bartókian scherzo which lashes out in anger. Shaham’s tone and intonation throughout this tour de force are impeccable.

Stravinsky and Alban Berg reacted to what they considered the excessive emotions of late Romanticism in contrasting ways: Stravinsky adopted neo-Classicism with baroque forms and his Violin Concerto, with its concision, ironic wit and dancing quality is a perfect example. Shaham is nimble and elegant but not afraid to expand his tone and phrasing in the Aria movements, to marvelous effect.

Berg’s adoption of the twelve-tone system of atonality was a more radical reaction to Romanticism, although much of his music contains Romantic undertones. This is arguably the only atonal work that has made any inroads into standard repertoire but it’s still a hard nut to crack. Shaham rides the emotional waves of this most anguished of concertos with great sensitivity and, in the final pages, his magical violin sound hovers like the angel of the title over the orchestra.

Benjamin Britten’s Concerto is the most challenging in its range, from the sultry habanera-like accompaniment of the first movement to the militaristic outbursts through to Shaham’s almost celestial whisperings in the extraordinary coda.

Not much to say about the Barber, easily the best known, only that it radiates a nostalgic glow worthy of the best. Shaham embraces the five very different idioms of these works with amazing aplomb. By the way, three of the concertos are conducted by David Robertson, the new Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Buy this set and be transported.