Before dealing with the distinctions of performance of the five violin concertos, let us consider the very project that Gil Shaham has begun. The recent global economic crisis reminds us that history is now ripe for a retrospection of the 1930s, particularly in the arts. The vigorous social rebound of the 1920s following the slaughter of the Great War now came to a traumatic halt. It was not the best of times. Besides the mounting misery of the Great Depression and its spread across the world, military fascism was on the rise with social intolerance and a growing threat of war. Jazz was evolving from New Orleans style and Charleston dances to big band swing. From the classical music perspective, Shaham examines how composers each approached this era, seeking a zeitgeist and insights into the social matrix and individuality. Four of the five pieces are from live concerts with different orchestras. To ensure some evenness in listening to the series, the same audio engineers were involved in editing and mixing (with the same exception) and conductor David Robertson was leader in three of the concerti, though this choice may also have its own disadvantages.
The first concerto, performed with the New York Philharmonic, is the Barber from 1939, begun at the outset of World War II with Barber hurrying back home from the Swiss alps. Although completed in 1940, Barber was not entirely satisfied, especially with the last movement, and revised it in 1948. Many renditions of this piece are highly romantic, but Shaham and Robertson interpret it in darker, realistic tones. The lyricism and beauty of the first movement now has a foreboding horizon, and the concerto soon turns plaintive and anxious with the shadow of war. This andante, recognized for its melancholic passion, is made achingly beautiful as well with Shaham. The piece ends with a brief energetic technically demanding presto, which after the revision includes a touch of post-war cynicism. I very much like this performance and also the sound engineering.
The musical friendship of Aban Berg and the family of Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and his wife, Mahler widow Alma Schindler, led to the 12-tone violin concerto of 1935 honoring the daughter of Gropius, who died at age 18. A deeply personal composition, it has musical quotations and allusions meaningful in Berg's life, and structurally it is ambivalent in its modern and traditional harmonies. Emotionally, the two-movement, 4-part piece does speak of tragedy and discord. The short-lived dance notes are crushed. At times, the music screams and laments. Eventually, at the very end, there is religious acceptance and release as the violin soars to heaven. With the Staatskapella Dresden, Shaham gives a subdued and rather even reading of depression and anguish, and the overall symphonic performance lacks the wide dynamic range of, say, the Sophie-Mutter/Levine collaboration, which has the additional emotion of anger; but neither is more valid than the other. People express grief in different ways.
The little known violin concerto by the poorly known Karl Amadeus Hartmann closes the first disc. Hartmann was an anti-fascist who kept a low profile in Nazi Germany with his painter brothers. During this period, he studied but did not write music, and refused to have his music performed. The 1939 (revised 1959) Concerto funebre, dedicated to his young son and spurred by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, is a somber reflection, jagged and influenced by Central European Expressionism. Musical quotations of a Hussite war choral and a funeral tune in remembrance of the failed 1905 revolution mark Hartmann's defiance. The piece closes lyrically, in gentle and quiet hope and caution until the final abrupt chord. The Sejong Soloists of New York, a string orchestra named after the 15th-century ruler of Korea, a patron of the arts, perform with Shaham in a studio recording.
The second disc opens with Stravinsky's frequently performed 4-section violin concerto. Shaham plays with the BBC Symphony. The playful, exciting work, often with Soldier's Tale edginess, begins with a folk dance toccata and runs through episodes of various fun and lively structuces. Written in 1931, it still has Jazz Age spunk, the Depression had not yet becoming Great, and war was a ridiculous thought. Having heard this perform many times, I was not disappointed with Shaham's perspective. It proved not so different, and indeed the first section was as joyful as I have ever heard. The close-in microphone on the violin allowed new appreciation for textured bowing and fingering in this work. The middle sections were lyrical and sweet between the strident chordal punctuation; and the final movement presents technical virtuosity with capriccio gymnastics.
From the rebellious, winking inventions of 1931 we come to Benjamin Britten's 1939 seriousness. For pacifist Britten, hope was fading. The light of Spain dimmed with Franco's victory and Poland was invaded. He took leave of England for Canada and then the United States, completing his concerto. Its drama and complexity in the first movement seemed to include bugle calls by the string section and Spanish rhythm and phrases haunt. Influenced by Shostokovich, the scherzo has teeth. The second movement has protest at its heart and ends with a surprisingly long solo violin cadenza with Spanish echoes. The final movement occupies nearly half the concerto. Twelve variations of the theme flow dark and obsessive; it closes on an extended sad note. Britten returned to England in 1942. The Boston Symphony led by Juajjo Mena helps Shaham convey the shattering of idealism, which can be the common core of these concerti. I welcome this series. Volume one consists of two discs, 71 and 54 min.