A little over two years ago this site reported on the two-CD set released by Canary Classics as the first volume in a series that Gil Shaham called 1930s Violin Concertos. The second volume was released exactly a month ago today. This volume consists of only a single CD with only two concertos, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 (second) concerto in G minor and Béla Bartók’s second concerto. Each concerto is performed with a different ensemble. Eric Jacobsen conducts The Knights for the Prokofiev, and Stéphane Denève conducts the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra for the Bartók.
Chronologically, these two concertos are relatively close. Aesthetically, they could not be more different. Prokofiev wrote his concerto in 1935, and Bartók completed his in 1938. Prokofiev claimed that his concerto captured the nomadic life he was leading as a touring performer. As he put it, “The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid.” Those familiar with Prokofiev’s music will not be surprised to learn that 1935 was also the year in which he composed the score for a Romeo and Juliet ballet, and the second movement of the concerto almost sounds like it could have served a pas de deux in that ballet. Bartók was in an entirely different situation. He was very attached to his native Hungary, an attachment reinforced by his interest in the country’s indigenous music. However, Hungary was succumbing to fascism in the late Thirties; and it would not be long until Bartók decided to leave his country.
Each concerto thus has its own characteristic “personality profile.” One of Shaham’s strengths is his appreciation for personality as a relevant context. Thus, each concerto is given its own distinctively different rhetorical stance through Shaham’s interpretation. In many respects the Prokofiev is the more accessible, if only due to the strong “family resemblance” to Prokofiev’s ballet music. On the other hand, the Bartók concerto is more “indigenous” in its nature; and Shaham is not shy in taking a vigorously visceral approach to many of the passages.
The other major difference between the concertos can be found in the ensemble work. Bartók takes a more “nuts and bolts” approach to how the ensemble supports the soloist. Prokofiev, on the other hand, had a great love for every instrument in every section of the orchestra. This means that his sonorities are far more colorful. One gets the impression that, when Prokofiev was not thinking about ballet, he was thinking about the brash approaches to coloration taken by the Fauves, determined to achieve through instrumentation what those painters had achieved through their wild juxtapositions of colors.
The question now is, “What next?;” or, perhaps, “Will there be a next?” Shaham has now covered most of the familiar violin concertos associated with the 1930s, as well as one not-so-familiar one by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Is the project complete; or will Shaham start exploring less-frequented areas of the repertoire? If he does turn up a “trove” of neglected concertos, will he be able to make the case that those concertos do not deserve to be neglected? Shaham is definitely an adventurous performer. Hopefully, he will not hold us in suspense with regard to any further work on this project.