WORKS: Violin Concerto; Double Concerto in A minor
PERFORMER: Gil Shaham (violin), Jian Wang (cello); Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 469 529-2
From the outset, this performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto seems anything but ordinary. Claudio Abbado’s flowing, relatively brisk tempi reveal an added dimension; here the concerto lilts as well as emotes. Almost as if he were promoting historical performance ideals, Abbado refreshingly clarifies the music’s expressive fabric, and his view supports (or may even be tailored to fit) what the soloist has to offer. Gil Shaham is not a probing or imposing player; instead, his gleaming sound conveys gracefulness and ecstasy, and by resisting the temptation to spotlight him the recorded balance makes his playing sound all but effortless. ‘Brahms lite’ may be an apt description of this performance – the drama in the first movement’s development section verges on the perfunctory at this pace, and one might well desire a more long-breathed treatment of the second movement. But the sheer life on display makes the work far more enjoyable, absorbing and expressively focused than it seems in the Vengerov/Barenboim account widely acclaimed as a modern benchmark. Of course, most listeners will have favourite realisations of the solo part, from Kreisler or Szigeti to Perlman or Kremer (Mutter’s Masur-led performance is my favourite recent effort in this vein).
Abbado’s approach creates effective moments in the Double Concerto, but cellist Jian Wang sounds scrappy and wayward in this company. The conductor’s Sony version with Stern and Ma makes a more consistently cogent effect, and, despite occasional roughness from the soloists, the Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Szell recording memorably blends discipline and expression. David Breckbill