Classical: Brahms rivals reach a draw

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The Independent Culture


ANYONE LAMENTING the lack of individuality in modern-day violinists will have learned a humbling lesson this week. Kennedy (just Kennedy - he no longer wishes to use his first name professionally) played the Brahms Violin Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday evening, and Gil Shaham (his junior by 15 years) tackled the same work at the Royal Festival Hall the following night. I say "the same work", though the spirit was so different in each case that you may as well have been hearing two separate pieces.

The long orchestral preamble was revealing, and not just about the orchestra or conductor. Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic set the scene on Wednesday, sympathetically and at a sensible tempo, while Kennedy looked on, his back to the audience. It's the sort of behaviour you witness at jazz or pop concerts, where the players relate to each other by eye contact, oblivious of both the venue and its crowds.

Shaham had the Philharmonia under Claus Peter Flor for company. Theirs was a good relationship, harmonious in gesture and tempo; but while Kennedy waited for his dramatic entrance before he turned to face us, Shaham stood in our full view for the duration, beaming visibly as the music intensified.

Kennedy's first statement was fierce and impulsive. He stamped the beat like a rock musician, but when the fuss died down and the "big" tune arrived, he traded the spikes and leather for a silvery, fine-spun line.

Shaham, on the other hand, really surprised me - not with his big, luscious sound (a familiar attribute), but with a level of spontaneity that is conspicuously lacking from most of his recordings.

The defining contrasts between the two mostly concern their very different tone-productions. In Shaham's case, this is full and pitch-perfect, but in Kennedy's, tends towards abrasiveness.

And yet Kennedy's aggression was musically well aimed. The famous suggestion that Brahms's concerto was written "against" the violin gained new justification and if some passages grated almost to the point of ugliness, others were serenely beautiful. In sum, I would have to say that on the evidence of these performances of Brahms, Shaham is the better violinist, Kennedy the more exciting musician.

An earlier version of this review appeared in later editions of the first section