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Violin art is not dead- a review of Gil Shaham

May 21, 2007 at 11:20 PM

It’s always been a mystery to me why Heifetz, Milstein, Kreisler et al. had the sheer effrontery to move on. Fortunately there are a few players around who can offer a couple of hours of utter magic in the concert hall. One such player is Gil Shaham. Yesterday I heard him play a program consisting of a Mozart d major sonata (as good a key as any), the Bach a minor unaccompanied sonata, a sonata by some dude called Pimpante and loads of Spanish stuff.
There are very few players who can actually play a decent Mozart sonata (I consider that an indictment of the music education business ;)) but Shaham can. He was as whimsical, intense or poetic as each changing moment demanded.
The Bach was thoroughly enjoyable. Shaham plays Bach in a very free form, romantic, in your face way, adjusting bowings and fingerings in very personal and even eccentric ways. The slow movement for example was played with many more bow changes than is normal in his striving for the biggest sound possible. If anything this approach tended to occlude the actual structure of the work at times and a few more moments of absolute peace and repose would have been nice. Incidentally, Mr. Shaham, if you are reading this, the left hand side of the hall responded very negatively to you turning round to the left so far that you were facing backwards into the piano for a lot of the time ;) Not been involved in robbing banks recently?
I’d never heard of this pimp piece but I think it was pretty good music. The first movement seemed to me to be somewhat influenced by the well known Prokofiev sonata for some reason, and the last barnstorming movement a rather blatant pastiche of works by Sarasate. Nonetheless, it seems well worth some good player (it’s a damn hard work) giving it an airing. Shaham played it like an angel. Playing like that, he could have been playing the Carl Flesch scale manual and we would have still been in heaven.
The following performance of Zapateado was, in my opinion, but perhaps not the audience, the worst thing on the program. At a tempo –markedly- faster than Heifetz at his most manic, the sense of the music was lost and some intonation in the higher positions was frankly dodgy. LH pizz at this blur is inaudible and uninteresting. Romanze Andaluza was absolutely gorgeous tonally and with artistic use of vibrato etc. Just too brash and in your face for my taste. It kind of lacked perfume. A romance like that would require taking weekends off or a lot of Viagra. This is Japan so of course at least one of Japan’s favorite hackworks has to be played: Zigeunerweisen. He played it well but all the scales passages were so rapid one was left with a somewhat uneasy sense of so what. Overall, my feeling was that Sarasate is not quite Shaham`s kettle of fish although he has the equipment to play it better than just about anyone else on the planet. I couldn’t help feeling I’d rather hear him playing Paginini and maybe Ysaye.
He finished up with a couple of Brahms Hungarian dances that I have never heard better anywhere, live or on disc. Awesome sound, flawless intonation, and the most demonic rubato and phrasing. Yep, that’s what I felt I was seeing: something demonic. Best recital I’ve been to in years.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 21, 2007 at 11:47 PM
A great Shaham PR job it is, Buri. I particularly like the bank robbing part! I’ve got a couple of his DG recordings, including the igeunerweisen, which I do like very much. Time to rush to ArkivMusic for more Shaham now...
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 12:15 AM
For those of you who are unsure, an igeunerweisen is a kind of dinosaur.Just the kind of thing Yixi would carry around in her handbag.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 12:28 AM
LOL! I do carry it in my bag a lot. How did you know?
From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 1:03 AM
I am glad Shaham played so well. We went to a concert a couple of months ago where he played Mozart Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the first time I heard him at a live concert. I am afraid we were quite disappointed with his playing and had been thinking his reputation was overrated.


From Ray Randall
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 1:26 AM
I've been looking for his Bruch recording, but we can not find it anywhere.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 1:42 AM
did you leave it in the fridge again?
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 3:01 AM
Buri, since you mentioned some of the old greats, I wonder if Shaham is Heifetz-good, Milstein-good, Kreisler-good, or of above, or just simply Shaham-good?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 3:23 AM
its an interesting question. Basically I think of being this good as standing on your own name. One can make comapirsons between quite specific components of technique IE Milstein had a little more of tehcnique x than Heifetz etc or more generalized x is mor emusicla than y. But the bottom line at this level is that the pieces are all there and each individual`s specialness stands alone to be taken or left.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 12:56 PM
I have always thought Shaham was the best of the current crop of violinists, and I agree that his Mozart is excellent. Mozart sonatas are a really good test of a violinist's mettle since they require something other than pyrotechnics. As far as Mozart is concerned, I worship at the altar of Goldberg and Kraus, but I am always glad to hear Shaham play him. I have gone to a number of his concerts and never been disappointed, whether he is playing Mozart, Vivaldi or Prokofiev.
From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on May 22, 2007 at 1:13 PM
Clearly, we were so totally off when we didn't get excited about Shaham's Mozart vc with Philadelphia Orchestra. It may not be about his playing, but he sounded flat (I don't mean in pitch.) and when the Orchestra picked up where he left off I was truely glad.


From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on May 23, 2007 at 12:10 AM
The only time I had the opportunity to see Gil live way when he played Elgar with the Atlanta Symphony this past season. I thought it was astounding.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 23, 2007 at 10:40 PM
Ihnsouk, I have also been to a less than exciting performance by Mr Shaham. I herad him play a faily flawless mendelssohn that left me cold. But, as you know, so many factors come into play in sustaining an internaitonal career these days. In that particular case Shaham had just flown into Japan (From where?) and wa spaling wiyth a stodgy conducter and a competent youth orchestra that did not have much experience of accompanying. I can`t helpfeeling that sometimes the older dudes could play maybe play ,more consistently because they took time off, traveled more slsowly and so on.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 25, 2007 at 1:27 AM
Buri, last a few days I'm listening to Shaham's CDs exclusively. I'm completely memorized by his tone and phrasing. I just saw a new thread asking if the appearance sells the CD, to me, only good reviews do. Thank you and thank you, Buri, for all your wonderful reviews.
From Roelof Bijkerk
Posted on May 25, 2007 at 11:17 PM
I actually sat in a bar with Gil Shaham once. He was just around the corner of the main counter. I was just sitting there, he had a drink and when people came by he would introduce himself. I'm a composer and started having an idea for a piece, he could somehow feel this because I settled down into my own world. He breathed a nice deep breath and said something like "well" or "so" or something and that was enough.

When he plays he also just feels this kind of phrasing in time, and he does it with warmth.

It's a crazy piece too. It's for Euphonium, Horn, violin, recorder ensemble, triangle and cowbell.


I don't go to bars much anymore, haven't for years

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