By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: