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 Recording of the Week  Gil Shaham plays Violin Concertos from the 1930s

The 1930s were without doubt the most productive decade that the musical form of the ‘violin concerto’ has ever known. I have to admit I hadn’t realised that fact until recently, when I heard about Gil Shaham’s latest unbelievably ambitious project – to record 18+ major concertos all dating from the 1930s!

Gil Shaham
Gil Shaham

He’s been programming and recording them in concert since the 2008-09 season, trying hard to match each concerto with orchestras and conductors where he feels there is an interpretative synergy. And on disc, we see the first fruits of those collaborations today, with the release of Vol. 1 – a two-disc set comprising the concertos of Barber, Berg, Hartmann, Stravinsky and Britten.

The 1930s were of course a tumultuous time in our history, with the devastating effects of the Great Depression affecting both rich and poor, and the growth of nationalistic and anti-Semitic feeling causing mounting international tensions and heading inexorably towards the Second World War.

Composers naturally responded to this in different ways, but the fact that so many of them chose the violin says something about the innate quality of the instrument's sound – its ability to sing and express deep emotion in a much more subtle way than the human voice. There is a lot of more about the history, impetus and inspiration behind these five concertos in the very good booklet notes which come with both the CD and download versions of this release.

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Gil Shaham’s warm and rich playing, and this music really suits him perfectly. He is an immensely passionate player, although always careful not to over-indulge, and I think as he gets older, and has lived with these works for longer, he seems to find more and more subtle ways of expressing things, which serves this music greatly.

There is so much to enjoy here, with the crowning Passacaglia which concludes the Britten Concerto played with haunting beauty. It is incredibly poignant, perhaps summarising better than anything else the incredible sense of fear and trepidation so abundant at that time.

The rapport with the various different orchestras and conductors always seems very close and full orchestral lists and biographies in the booklet further reinforce what we hear – that the orchestra is an integral part of each and every one of these concertos. Taken from live concerts there is a real sense of occasion about these recordings, yet they still sound technically virtually faultless and the balance and general recorded sound is superb.

Looking ahead, I’m told that Walton and Khachaturian have already been recorded with the Philadelphia (although the Khachaturian dates from 1940, so I’m not sure if that one will be officially allowed into this series!), and Bartók 2 and Prokofiev 2 are scheduled over the next twelve months. Beyond that are Schoenberg, Martinů, Milhaud, Bloch, Hindemith, Szymanowski 2, plus (if we’re going to get past 18) a few more.

Sound samples, download link, plus a short introductory video via the links below – enjoy. Without doubt my Disc of the Year so far!

1930s Violin Concertos, Vol. 1

Gil Shaham (violin), various orchestras and conductors

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC