Gil Shaham’s Transcendent Mozart

United StatesUnited States  Mozart and Haydn: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Gil Shaham (violin), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 25.10.2012 (BJ)                 

“Delight” is perhaps the only word strong enough to describe the response that Gil Shaham’s performance in the Seattle Symphony’s “Mainly Mozart” series evoked in the audience, this critic included.

Until now, the performance of a Mozart violin concerto that has stood in my memory as the greatest in my experience was one Leonidas Kavakos gave of No. 3 in Philadelphia about ten years ago. Shaham’s account of No. 5 was on at least the same exalted level. It could be said that Kavakos’s playing was a tad purer in terms of 18th-century style, whereas with Shaham it was the combination of intensity, charm, and sheer personality – coupled with stunning technical skill – that dazzled. Mozart himself was a mercurial fellow – witness, in this concerto, a finale that might be described as “one damn thing after another,” but that nevertheless achieves total coherence – and the Israeli-American violinist matched him thrust for trenchant thrust in wit, poetry, and imagination. He also showed a welcome willingness to play détaché in places where the more conventional sort of virtuoso is inclined to opt for unrelieved smoothness.

Heightening the effect of Shaham’s playing was the orchestra’s zestful support. The strings plainly felt at one with their distinguished soloist (who is, astonishingly when you consider his long record of mastery, still only 41). They produced one eloquent phrase after another, and dug with uninhibited gusto into the episode in the finale that earned the work its unofficial “Turkish” nickname. There was excellent work, too, from the horns and from Stefan Farkas on oboe.

Since everyone on stage was clearly having a good time, the consequence was that the audience did likewise. There are standing ovations, and standing ovations. The one that greeted this performance was exceptionally full-throated, and Shaham rewarded his listeners with a spectacular piece of violin wizardry, his own extended virtuoso arrangement of the Turkish folk-song, Nihavent Longa.

None of this, of course, could have been so satisfying without an equally committed contribution from the conductor. Not only in the concerto, but all evening, Ludovic Morlot was obviously in love with the music he was directing. The program had begun with Eine kleine Nachtmusik – Mozart’s “Little Serenade” – in a reading of irresistible freshness, enhanced, moreover, by the observation of both repeats in the “da capo” return of the minuet.

It was almost exactly three years ago that the man who is now music director first conducted the Seattle Symphony. A Haydn symphony, No. 88, was on the program then, and Haydn figured again this time. No. 49 in F minor (known, again unofficially, as “La passione”) may not be the greatest of the composer’s so-called “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Stress”) symphonies: that distinction belongs, I think, to No. 44, the “Trauer,” or “Mourning,” symphony. But it is a work of powerful emotional heft, and Morlot’s interpretation brought out all its sense of harried desperation.

What a concert!


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.