Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major (CD review)

Also, Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major. Gil Shaham, violin; Eric Jacobsen, The Knights. Canary Classics 5 060133 3000 14.

By John J. Puccio

If you’re not quite sure who Gil Shaham is, a word from his bio might help. Mr. Shaham “is one of the foremost violinists of our time; his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master.” He’s also a Grammy Award-winner, Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” and in demand throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors. Most important, he’s very good at what he does, a vibrant, creative, virtuosic entertainer.

On the present recording Mr. Shaham performs with The Knights. They, too, may be unfamiliar to some listeners, although they shouldn’t be because they have recorded quite a lot of material over the past few decades. They are a New York-based chamber orchestra formed by Eric and Colin Jacobsen while they were music students in the 1990’s. Originally, they called themselves “The Knights of the Many-Sided Table,” a rather unwieldy title they changed simply to The Knights. According to Wikipedpia, “Members of The Knights are composers, arrangers, singer-songwriters, and improvisers who bring a range of cultural influences to the group from baroque and classical performance practice to jazz and klezmer genres to pop and indie rock music.”

Together, Shaham and The Knights present two of the best-known violin concertos in the classical repertoire, those by Beethoven and Brahms, and they make them seem new all over again.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major in 1806, where it received an unsuccessful première and was practically shelved for the rest of the composer’s lifetime. He never published another violin concerto, so maybe he lost heart. The world would have to wait until 1844 to see the piece revived by violinist Joseph Joachim and conductor and composer Felix Mendelssohn, and, of course, it has been one of the leading concertos in the genre ever since.

Beethoven’s concerto begins with a lengthy and fairly laid-back introduction before the violin finally enters with a flourish. A slow, central Larghetto follows, and then a lively Rondo caps things off. When Shaham enters with the violin, he does so with a flourish. His musicianship is impeccable, a violin virtuoso of the highest order. More important, Shaham practically attacks the score, imbuing it with vigor and enthusiasm, yet losing nothing of the music’s inherent lyrical qualities. Along with the interpretation by Jascha Heifetz, Shaham’s performance is among the most exciting I’ve ever heard on record. Understand, however, that there are more subtle, more refined, more cultivated recordings available from the likes of Itzhak Perlman (EMI),  Henryk Szeryng (Philips), James Ehnes (Onyx), Vadim Repin (DG), Gidon Kremer (Teldec), Arthur Grumiaux (Pentatone), Rachel Barton Pine (Cedille), and others. But none of them tops this new release from Gil Shaham for total listener involvement and satisfaction.

Shaham takes the second-movement Larghetto at a smooth, leisurely, yet entirely engaging pace, providing all the beauty Beethoven has to offer. Finally, there’s that bouncy Rondo, Allegro, where Shaham shows us how playful he can get. It helps, too, to have so responsive a group as The Knights behind him, who complement him perfectly with their own heartiness and exuberance.

German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 around the time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and the two pieces display a similar pastoral, bucolic atmosphere. However, the slightly later Violin Concerto sounds a little more rugged and robust, yet more lofty and aristocratic, almost as rustic as it is rhapsodic, making it something of an opposition in charms. What’s more, because Brahms grew up in a period where classicism was giving way to full-blown Romanticism, the composer sometimes found himself caught between the two competing styles, as we hear in this piece.

Although Brahms’s concerto is a little more complex and a bit more difficult to manage than Beethoven’s, Shaham negotiates it with an assuredness that comes from years of dedication and experience. His approach is flawless, cogent, and persuasive. As in the Beethoven, his playing is keen and ebullient, bringing a consummate joy to the music. These performances are laser focused yet spontaneous, pleasing in every regard. As with the Beethoven, you may find other recordings you like as well, but it’s hard to imagine one any more appealing on all counts, including the sound.

Producer Martha de Francisco and engineer Brian Losch recorded the music at LeFrak Hall, Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, Flushing, New York in August 2019. Because The Knights are a relatively small ensemble, they show up quite transparently on record. It helps, of course, that the recording engineer ensured that the sound wasn’t too close or too distant, and that nothing appeared unnaturally bright, heavy, dull, or soft. Everything is just about right, including some full-bodied drum work. When the violin enters, it’s just where we expect it to be, nicely centered yet agreeably integrated with the orchestra.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa