Offering an ebullient counterbalance to the often shadowy intensity of many of the works Gil Shaham is performing this season in his ongoing “Concertos of the 1930s” project, the celebrated violinist presents a new recording of Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major and Violin Concerto No. 4 in G major and Mendelssohn’s Octet. Shaham is joined by the Sejong Soloists on the new CD, due for release on March 30 on his own label, Canary Classics.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) died in the same year that Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was born; the new recording grew out of the centenary concerts that Shaham and Sejong gave in 2009. Haydn was no doubt an influence on Mendelssohn’s music, and the younger composer held the earlier master in the highest esteem. The works featured on the new album share a buoyant enthusiasm reflective of both composers’ youth: Mendelssohn was just a teenager when the debut of his Octet in 1825 catapulted him to fame; Haydn wrote the two concertos heard on this disc during the 1760s, when he was in his 30s and still in his self-proclaimed “extended youthful period.”
Gil Shaham comments on the recording of Mendelssohn’s Octet: “Documents from the time show Mendelssohn thought of this piece as a ‘brand new type of music’ – revolutionary music from a 16-year-old who was out to prove himself and change the musical world. Although we stuck almost exclusively with Mendelssohn’s final revised version of the Octet, looking at the original was inspiring. The faster tempo markings and the attention to staccato articulation in Mendelssohn’s own handwriting persuaded us to try to conjure up a magical spirit world conveyed in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Goethe’s Faust, both works that greatly fired the young composer’s imagination.”
Haydn’s Concerto in C major was written for the violinist Alois Luigi Tomasini, whose star as a soloist was rising throughout Central Europe and who had recently begun his tenure as concert-master of the Esterhazy Orchestra, for whom Haydn would write so many of his works during his decades of service to the Esterhazy family in Eisenstadt. The C major presents greater technical challenges than the G major concerto, although as Stephen Somary explains in the album’s liner notes: “it allows the composer to focus [in the G major] on rhythmically driven and soaring melodic lines, as well as beautiful long phrases, especially in the slow second movement.”
Gil Shaham and Sejong’s association extends back more than ten years. Shaham says that performing the Mendelssohn Octet with Sejong is “like playing basketball with seven Michael Jordans. It was a privilege for me, sitting there with my graying hair, to try and keep up with their artistry." Sejong is renowned for its cohesiveness and refreshing musical style, and together with Shaham the ensemble brings to this repertoire a sense of intimacy, compelling intensity and engagement. (Shaham, incidentally, studied at Juilliard with renowned violin professor Hyo Kang, Sejong’s Artistic Director.)
Shaham and Sejong have toured the featured repertoire extensively, and as the concert review in the Santa Barbara Independent noted: “Shaham manages to combine extraordinary virtuosity with uncommon restraint ... The majestic sweep of the augmented quartet form was given full rein ... Two powerful forces in the service of a higher cause.”
Shaham’s previous recording for Canary Classics was a tribute to Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate in his centenary year. In its December issue, BBC Music magazine noted: “With his pure tone, immaculately clear delivery and refusal to over-indulge, Shaham proves to be an almost ideal interpreter of this repertory. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in the live recordings as he surmounts all the technical hurdles of the Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen with outrageous ease.” Gramophone’s similarly enthusiastic review followed in January: “Both violinists [Shaham and Adele Anthony] have a real feeling for the music – its sometimes outrageous showmanship, which Shaham is particularly good at portraying, combined with easy, graceful, aristocratic manners.”