Philharmonia Orchestra/Zinman (4 March)

Adagio for strings, Op.11
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op 68

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Over the past year London has had the opportunity to hear three interesting performances of Elgar’s Violin Concerto from US-domiciled or US-born violinists – Midori, Hilary Hahn and, now, Gil Shaham. The New York-born David Zinman recently gave us a memorable Elgar Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma at last year’s Proms. Is this the emergence of an American Elgar performance tradition? Well, not quite, since all three performances of the Violin Concerto were quite different.

In one sense Gil Shaham started with a double advantage: he naturally possesses a larger tone than either Midori or Hahn, and the Philharmonia in full cry is a little less powerful than the LSO (for Midori and Hahn), so the soloist has less to contend with. However, although there were many fine things from Shaham, his reading of the Elgar is still ’work in progress’.

The outstanding moments were the finale’s ’accompanied cadenza’ – time standing still and not seeming a moment too long – and the slow movement which, aided and abetted by Zinman’s sympathetic accompaniment, touched to the core of Elgarian melancholy, of “things never to return”. Elsewhere, despite some wonderful moments, the performance was curiously unsettled, veering from the violin’s very expansive first entry to some overly frenetic fast passages. What’s not quite there, yet, is a natural Elgarian rubato which allows expansion and contraction without losing the overall line. Certainly Shaham has the makings of a very fine interpretation, one with the priceless virtue of speaking to an audience from the heart.

Under Zinman’s sensitive hand the Philharmonia’s concerto contribution was remarkably fine, the first movement’s central climax lifting off like a rocket followed by some superb soft-playing from the violas in its backwash. At moments like these one remembered that Zinman was a one-time assistant to Pierre Monteux, who recorded Enigma Variations.

Unfortunately the Brahms that followed was something of an anticlimax – routine, certainly not in the same class as Dohnányi’s resoundingly fine Philharmonia performance earlier in the season. Despite some excellent individual contributions, notably Christopher Cowie’s oboe solo in the slow movement, and Zinman’s expert balancing of textures, the debit side was that the final culmination fell-short and there was some overbearing timpani playing in the finale.

The concert opened with a memorable performance of the Barber, understated until its central climax and subtly coloured in its closing pages. This whetted one’s appetite for Shaham and Zinman’s upcoming all-American concert this Sunday afternoon in the RFH when Shaham plays Barber’s concerto. How nice to see Shaham sit with the audience after his solo spot. Collegiate still has some meaning.

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