Gil Shaham performs concertos by Bartók & Prokofiev

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COMPOSERS: Bela Bartók; Sergey Prokofiev
LABELS: Canary Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Bartók • Prokofiev
WORKS: Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2; Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2*
PERFORMER: Gil Shaham (violin); The Knights/Eric Jacobsen; Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stéphane Denève*
CATALOGUE NO: Canary Classics CC 16


For his second CD exploring great violin concertos of the 1930s, Gil Shaham turns to two masterpieces with more in common than one might have expected. Despite their very different musical languages, both Second Violin Concertos by Prokofiev and Bartók are characterised by feelings of nostalgia and lyrical reflection. Yet an underlying sense of anxiety is never far from the surface, fuelled in many instances by sudden eruptions of high-voltage aggression. 

Shaham’s earlier DG recording of the Prokofiev with the LSO under André Previn remains a benchmark performance, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he has opted for a slightly different approach here. Most striking is his decision to perform the work with a chamber orchestra, The Knights, so achieving greater intimacy of dialogue between violin and solo woodwind, and emphasising an almost Stravinskian transparency of texture, particularly in the Finale. On the debit side, the ensemble’s limited number of string players results in a disappointingly thin sound when the violins play their beautiful melody near the beginning of the slow movement.

There are significant differences, too, between Shaham’s 1999 version of the Bartók with Pierre Boulez (also for DG) and the present performance, not least that soloist and conductor Stéphane Denève opt for far less expansive tempos. Yet whereas Shaham appears somewhat inhibited by Boulez’s cooler approach to the score, Denève is far more impulsive, encouraging his excellent Stuttgart Orchestra to deliver characterful responses to the quixotic changes of mood especially in the central Variation movement. As ever, Shaham responds with playing of great musical intelligence and tonal purity.


Erik Levi