Gil Shaham Explores 1930s Violin Concertos
Gil Shaham embraces little-known gems and beloved masterpieces from a decade marred by turmoil
The tumultuous 1930s saw the Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the ensuing Second World War. But as American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham has discovered, it also spawned the zenith in 20th-century violin concerto composition. “It’s such an interesting time when this music was written,” Shaham says. “People felt they were in a time filled with turbulence and trepidation. People felt like they were on this volcano that was about to erupt.”
Why this particular era was a boon to violin concerto writing has fascinated Shaham and resulted in his ongoing project, Violin Concertos of the 1930s. Now in its third season, the series is examining the Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D major (1931), the Barber Violin Concerto (1939), and the Berg Violin Concerto (1935), all three of which will be featured on an upcoming CD released on Shaham’s Canary Classics label. For these recordings, Shaham is working with conductor David Robertson, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and another yet-to-be-announced orchestra.
The recording is just a part of a larger, more sweeping examination of these great 20th-century works. This season, Shaham performed with and led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre (1939). He is scheduled to take the William Walton Violin Concerto (1938–39) on tour with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchester, and the Houston and Milwaukee symphonies. He will also perform the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor (1935) with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris.
Read a 1999 Q+A with Gil Shaham.
Performances of the Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937–38) are slated with the Seattle Symphony and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.
He plans to continue the project for at least two more seasons with an eye toward adding concertos by Hindemith, Szymanowski, and Milhaud.
In his usual self-deprecating tone, Shaham says his lack of organizational skills has prevented him from researching each piece as much as he would have liked. Instead, the 40-year-old violinist relies on materials he’s picked up along the way from colleagues and friends.
But, oh, what friends Shaham has.
Over baked eggs and English breakfast tea at a restaurant near his New York Upper West Side apartment, Shaham describes how he’s amassed several versions of each piece over the years, the lessons he’s picked up from such violin luminaries as Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin, and other considerations for rendering an accurate
portrayal of music from the 1930s.
Searching & Settling the Score
Though Shaham first learned the Prokofiev concerto from a Universal Edition, he’s found a photocopy with David Oistrakh’s fingerings to be particularly useful. The copy was a gift from Stern, who also gave him a little lecture on the first movement. Stern noted that a few passages were inspired by the balalaika—a Russian, three-stringed, plucked instrument adored by Tchaikovsky—and that they should feel like folk music. In addition, Stern taught Shaham how to make the violin sound like a folk accordion: use a single-note downbeat followed by a lighter double-stop.
Shaham’s interpretation of the Prokofiev concerto has probably changed the most over time. In the first movement, for example, the basses and cellos play pizzicato notes and the violas and violins play the offbeats while the soloist plays over them. Shaham used to play the section with an upbeat tone, but he now believes it’s meant to be more sinister and creepy sounding. “Over the years, things grow in your head, the way you feel about music,” Shaham says. He hums the section with a tone not dissimilar to the theme music from the Steven Spielberg film Jaws.
Shaham used to play the music faster, but now he’s started adhering more strictly to tempos and metronome markings. “I think I’ve gotten stricter in my old age,” Shaham jokes. “Now, I feel like he really means it. I have more experience playing his music, and I find Prokofiev to be like a clock. His metronome markings are so perfect all the time.”
Similarly, Shaham strived for accuracy while trying to perform the Berg concerto. “His tempo markings are pretty good, so I stick with them, but I do play it faster than I did before,” he adds.
Shaham was deeply moved by an original recording of the Berg concerto by renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Louis Krasner. “The recording is so touching, so soul-stirring—and it was all in one take,” Shaham says.
Krasner had commissioned Berg to write the work to dispel the notion that 12-tone music—which requires equal time for each note in the chromatic scale—can’t be soul stirring. Berg accepted reluctantly and invited Krasner over to his house. Then the composer asked Krasner to improvise in a separate room, which ultimately inspired the concerto. “The sections are like out-of-tune Beethoven,” Shaham says.
Shaham would find it difficult to locate an accurate version to play. “There were so many mistakes in the first version of the music that people talk of a first and second version of the Berg concerto,” he quips.
Over the years, Shaham has played many editions of the Berg concerto and tried to learn from them all. He was also influenced by Polish violin virtuoso Henryk Szeryng’s original personal score photocopied from the library of the Israel Philharmonic. Szeryng, who made a famous recording of the piece, wrote meticulous bowings and markings and also marked several of the wrong notes from an early version of the piece.
Recently, Universal Edition released an updated version of the music, which Shaham has relied on heavily because of well-documented mistakes in early versions. “There was a lot more scholarship behind this one,” Shaham said. “It was much more authoritative.”
Excavating Emotion from the Back Story
- Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Concerto funebre (Schott)
- Bela Bartók, Violin Concerto No. 2 (Boosey & Hawkes)
- Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor (Boosey & Hawkes), a photocopy of a Russian edition with David Fyodorovich Oistrakh’s fingerings
- Alban Berg, Violin Concerto (Universal)
- William Walton, Violin Concerto (Oxford)
- Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings (Schirmer)
- Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D (Schott)
In other pieces, like the Barber concerto, Shaham was less driven by accuracy and more motivated by the history and the feeling of the piece. He visited Barber’s old New York apartment, where the composer wrote what’s considered one of the great American violin concertos. The famed conductor David Zinman told him a story he had read about an old lady in the building who would yell at kids playing ball outside for disturbing the maestro while Barber was trying to compose.
The experience helped Shaham imagine Barber’s inspiration. After Barber had finished the first two movements and started on the Finale, he returned to the United States from England because of the war. While the first two movements are melodic, the Finale is choppier and more haunting, reminiscent of the sounds of urban America—sirens, car horns, skyscrapers being built. Visiting his home helped Shaham imagine that setting. “Music does have a way of capturing a time,” Shaham says.
An artifact from the time also helped inspire his rendition of the Bartók concerto. When Shaham was in Chicago ten years ago, a friend of his passed along a copy of the original handwritten manuscript. “It was fascinating,” Shaham says. “Even the handwriting is inspiring—so clear and so beautiful. I think it gives me a little insight into his mood, his way of thinking, and the kind of clarity of his mind.”
Another friend of Shaham’s, Yehudi Menuhin, also gave him a few pointers for performing the Bartók. The great Menuhin said that Bartók was unhappy with the rough, aggressive way people sometimes played his music. Hence, Shaham brings forth a sweeter feeling to the music.
Of all the works in Shaham’s series, the Hartmann is perhaps the most revealing of the zeitgeist during that decade. Shaham rented a handwritten version of the orchestra parts. These pages bear markings from players who had rented it for previous performances, including notes on bowings, vibrato, character, and tempo. Written after the Nazi invasion of then-Czechoslovakia, the work is politically charged and incorporates a patriotic Czech hymn called “Those Who Are God’s Warriors” with a famous Russian revolutionary song from 1905. For Shaham, the concerto provides the key to understanding why the violin was the instrument of choice for the composers during that period.
“Maybe there’s something about the genre of the violin concerto,” he speculates, “one voice pitted against the voices of many, the struggle of the individual against a society?”