Classical Music: Don't fret about the Beethoven

Gil Shaham, Philharmonia Orchestra Royal Festival Hall, London
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Gil Shaham, Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London

Some violinists take the stage by storm. The imperative is, evidently, establish a presence - throw yourself around, make a big, impressive tone, attack those difficult runs with a steely frown and plenty of heroic sawing with the bowing-arm. At 27, Gil Shaham is clearly too mature for such theatrical antics. It is possible, indeed justifiable, to be theatrical in parts of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, as some of the solo writing is phenomenally difficult. (Taxed about this by a violin-playing contemporary, Beethoven is said to have replied, "Do you think I bother about your puny little fiddle when God speaks to me?")

But Gil Shaham commands attention with sweet tone, and musicianship that unostentatiously trawls great depths. If his manner (artistically speaking) recalls any great figure of the past, it is the Russian Virtuoso David Oistrakh - a violinist who had plenty to show off about, but never did, preferring at all times to show his faith in the music. The quality of Shaham's artistry was clear from the start. The first solo entry in the Beethoven Concerto is extraordinary. The violin seems to enter in mid- phrase - not a bold statement, "Here I am", but a reflective answer to the Orchestra's fortissimo assertions. The egoistic virtuoso can't resist showing off immediately, but in Gil Shaham's hands the first notes arose so beautifully, so naturally out of what went before that it was a moment or two before the fact registered - the soloist is playing.

Not that Shaham couldn't be forceful when needed. Even in this supremely lyrical concerto there are moments when Beethoven does a bit of kicking at Heaven's gate. But the prevailing impression was of commanding quietness, especially in the weightless meditation of the slow movement. Here, as throughout this performance, Shaham was near-perfectly partnered by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lawrence Foster - crisp, strong but by no means unyielding playing. An outstanding performance all round.

Foster and the Philharmonia followed this with Schumann's Third Symphony, the Rhenish. According to concert-planners' lore, Schumann's symphonies are box-office death, but the near-capacity Festival Hall audience stayed for the symphony and, judging from the applause, enjoyed it almost as much as Gil Shaham's Beethoven. The Rhenish isn't without its challenges to the conductor. Between the two energetic outer movements there are three more-or-less slow movements in succession. Get the pace, the moods and colours right and there's no problem; get them wrong and it drags. There was no dragging here. The first movement leapt into life and soared majestically. The slowish Scherzo and the slower, gentler orchestral song that follows were all well characterised, after which the sombre, trombone- enhanced fourth movement - "Like an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony" - was like stepping into spacious, cool darkness: a cathedral or a vast continental forest.

Why are some critics still so patronising about Schumann's symphonies? They are all wonderful feats of the imagination, the Rhenish perhaps the most wonderful of them all. After this performance, the very least that could be said for Lawrence Foster is that he plainly has no time for received opinion. Well, good for him.

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