CLASSICAL MUSIC Hagai Shaham, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
The last time I heard Joseph Achron's Hebrew Melody, it was through a misty veil of shellac surface noise. But on Thursday evening at the Wigmore Hall, 30-year-old violinist Hagai Shaham drew aside the veil to reveal a soulful narrative and a tone that was as rich and vibrant as Jascha Heifetz's on my trusted old 78rpm record. Hagai gave us the Melody as one of two encores, having already treated us to three other works by Achron - the three-movement Stempenyu Suite, a highly charged Stimmung and a rustic Hebrew Dance. Achron was born in Lithuania in 1886, emigrated to America and died there in 1943. His work recalls small Jewish communities in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, sacred in joy and supplication, passionate, excitable and without the least suggestion of pretension. It's the music of heart and family, comfortable and intensely emotional and in marked contrast to the more cosmopolitan language of Ernest Bloch. Hagai's playing was both seamless and rhapsodic: he'd speed dangerously through the Hebrew Dance and yet his control of the bow allowed for an ethereal, long-breathed diminuendo at the end of the Hebrew Melody. Arnon Erez, Shaham's pianist, showed parallel insights into Achron's piano-writing (his handling of the Melody's opening bars was remarkably free) and I was happy to learn that these talented young artists have recorded a whole CD's worth of Achron's music for Biddulph (it's a November release).

It was but a short hop from the Hebrew Dance of Achron to the Hungarian Folk Dances that Bartok arranged for piano and that Joseph Szigeti transcribed for violin and piano. The same executive virtues warmed the melody line - curvaceous slides, a smoothly drawn tone, generous vibrato and judicious phrasing, with only the odd botched harmonic to mar the effect. Debussy's late Violin Sonata was suitably capricious, with some spectacular runs and fairly forthright support from Erez.

Prior to the interval, our fiery fiddler was a formal violinist and Arnon Erez more an accompanist than an equal partner. The opening Bach Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023, found Shaham rather rushing his fences, sliding from the note's centre during the opening Allegro, though quickly regaining composure for the remaining three movements. This time, the tone was lean, bright and cool, whereas the Kreutzer Sonata had plenty of "welly" and a good deal of theatrical inflexion: Shaham is pretty adept at soaring high on a forte then diving to a sudden pianissimo. The second movement went very well (Shaham's trills are immaculate), though I would have welcomed less of a gap between individual variations. The finale was a genuine Presto, played with its repeat intact (the first movement's repeat was omitted) and maintaining considerable momentum for the duration. It was a good performance, more respectful than perceptive, whereas Hagai's Achron, Bartok and Debussy were confided "from the inside". If he plays for us again - and I sincerely hope that he does - perhaps he will forgo the formality of a "classical first half" and treat us to more rarities by Achron and, perhaps, Hubay or Ysae.