Beethoven, Brahms, and Shaham
Violinist Gil Shaham reveals deeply embedded musical and narrative connections between two foundational concertos.
One of them, the singular Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven, embodies all of the epochal tension the composer's music represents, from Apollonian Classicism to emotion-driven Romanticism. It has also formed the basis, in a newly conceived chamber ensemble arrangement, for a number of recent pandemic-era performances, including the first in a new series co-produced by GBH Music and IDAGIO.
I talked with Gil Shaham about that piece and Brahms's Violin Concerto, which are the two works on a new release from Shaham's label, Canary Classics. Along with demonstrating the mirror-image qualities of the two pieces, he also talked about his perception of friendship being at the core of the Brahms concerto, the choices he made of which cadenzas to play (out of dozens of alternatives!), and why this recording could only have been made with The Knights.
Interview transcript below.
Brian McCreath (BMcC) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB and I'm talking with Gil Shaham, one of my favorite people to talk to. And Gil, thanks for taking a little bit of time out of your life to be here with me again.
Gil Shaham (GS) [00:00:09] So happy to be with you, Brian. Right back at you.
BMcC [00:00:14] Well, Gil, we have this show that we did with Idagio that focused on the Beethoven concerto. And it was such a it was such a joy to have you in the studio to do that show. But there's so much more that goes on with this new recording that you did with The Knights. And so I felt like it would be just a really nice chance to talk with you more about the recording itself. And I have to say that the recording, when I first heard it, when I first listened to it, I had a feeling that it was like opening a present. It felt like that discovery of like, oh, wow, there's something really neat in here, because honestly, from the first notes of the Beethoven, it it didn't feel like other recordings of this music that I've heard before. And it goes for the Brahms, too.
[00:01:04] There's something about your performance with The Knights of the Brahms concerto that is unlike others that I'm used to and that I've heard both in concert and on recordings. So I'm kind of going on and on about it here. But I guess the reason that I wanted to sort of begin with my impression is simply that I'm curious about your way of doing this with The Knights and whether there was a sort of common approach to this, when you sat down with Eric and with the musicians, or, how much negotiation and discussion and trying things out, did you have to go through with them to arrive at these particular interpretations?
GS [00:01:47] You know, the thing that we had that we normally maybe don't have is lots of time. And, you know, these two pieces, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the Brahms Violin Concerto, they are, I don't know. What would you say? They're like the pinnacle, right? They are the summit of this genre, you know, violin concerto genre. And we all love them and we all, you know, feel strongly about them, have many opinions, many thoughts, have lived with them for many years, myself included, you know.
[00:02:24] And so what we really tried to do was get everybody's thoughts in, you know. And we're used to rehearsing in an undemocratic fashion where, you know, the soloist says, "I want to do this," or maybe a conductor wants to do this. The Knights, everybody gets a say. And I guess the first step was, Eric and Colin [Jacobsen] and myself, we got together and we spoke about each piece. And then the next step was we met at the Jacobsen's house in Brooklyn with section leaders. And we sort of read through the two pieces, kind of like chamber music and got everybody's thoughts and ideas. And finally we met with the orchestra and started rehearsals there. And so we really went through many experiments and many ideas and ended up, you know, with something hopefully we're all happy with.
BMcC [00:03:28] I can't imagine you wouldn't be, because it really is, it's a refreshing recording. It really is. It has that sense about it of like a little bit of urgency, a lot of beauty. People use the word electricity sometimes and maybe that's overused with music. But there is this energy that courses through it. And the process you describe takes me back to the stories I've heard about how The Knights even came into being as these sort of jam sessions that the Jacobsens would host at their home when they were at Juilliard. And and so that process, that organic process of discussion, trying things out, experimentation, not something that often is possible with those major symphony orchestras that you're one of the guests of so often. And we love major orchestras like the BSO or the Chicago Symphony or whoever, but they don't work that way. So it sounds like maybe this approach, your way of doing these pieces on this recording could almost only happen with The Knights.
GS [00:04:33] I was very lucky to be doing this with The Knights. I guess Colin and I know each other way back. My wife is a violinist, Adele Anthony, and and we were in school together with Colin. And it was really through Colin that we met Eric and I guess 12 years ago, both Adele and myself did a little thing with The Knights for the first time at a nightclub in New York, at Le Poisson Rouge. And we played some Sarasate. Later we recorded, The Knights and myself, we did a Prokofiev concerto. And that was really an inspiring experience for me, a wonderful experience. And as part of that project, we toured and I remember a concert in which The Knights performed, the Eroica Symphony, the Third Symphony of Beethoven's. And I loved that performance. You know, I, I thought that they did exactly what I would like performers to do.
[00:05:36] You know, I always think our job is like the job of an actor. You know, we take what's on the page and we bring it to life for our audience. And hopefully we can bring some of the spirit, some of the message of the composer to our audience, to our listeners. And I felt they captured the spirit of Beethoven, and that's when I spoke to Eric, I said, look, why don't we try to do the Beethoven? At the time, I said, how do you feel about the Beethoven single? You know, because he's a cellist. And so, you know, we talked about the Beethoven triple, but this time I said, how about the Beethoven single? And once we started discussing that, we also thought about, well, why not do the Brahms single, too, you know?
BMcC [00:06:20] So let's talk about that. The fact that you have put these two pieces together, it's actually not uncommon. In fact, when you were with us here in Boston, you and I had a little exchange about where we first heard the Beethoven concerto. And then you asked me what my first hearing was.
GS [00:06:34] And what was it?
BMcC [00:06:34] Oh, it was that Heifetz recording with Boston, the Beethoven concerto that Heifetz recorded with Boston and Charles Munch, that's how I got to know that piece. And it was, oh, my gosh, what a magnificent recording. And it's paired with the Brahms with, would it have been Reiner? Reiner in Chicago. It was Chicago. I think it must have been Reiner.
GS [00:06:56] I think that's right. Yes.
BMcC [00:06:58] So these pieces, you know, they go together on other recordings. So it can't, it's not like a surprising choice. But tell me musically and historically or narratively how you feel that these pieces work together on a single recording?
GS [00:07:13] Well, I think that the story of the Brahms Violin Concerto really in a way, begins with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. There was a performance in Hamburg by the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim and a young, you know, a 14 year old Johannes Brahms was in the audience hearing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And Styra Avins, who we were lucky to have the notes for our CDs, she's a brilliant Brahmsian and a wonderful musicologist.
BMcC [00:07:53] Wonderful notes, wonderful notes. Really, really lovely to read.
GS [00:07:56] She's brilliant. And she confirms that this concert had an amazing effect on Brahms and really changed his life, you know. And I believe the Beethoven Violin Concerto has that power. Maybe you have a similar experience, but I think it really is a life changing experience to hear that piece. And in fact, there's a letter from Brahms to Joachim later on in life where they discuss how during those early days they listen to the Beethoven's Violin Concerto and his C Minor Symphony. And I believe they also talk about Don Giovanni of Mozart. And, I don't know, I like to imagine that maybe even back then, Brahms, in the back of his mind was thinking, you know, one day I will write a C minor symphony and one day I will write a D Major violin concerto. And there are many similarities between the two pieces. You know, I have the fiddle here. Maybe I'll try, you know, there are-- if you think of the opening cadenza in the Beethoven, you know.
[00:09:11] [Plays violin]
[00:09:16] You know, and in Brahms, you have the opening cadenza, also similar, you know.
[00:09:20] [Plays violin]
[00:09:26] You know, in Beethoven, you have--
[00:09:36] [Plays violin]
[00:09:36] You know, in Brahms, you have--
[00:09:36] [Plays violin]
[00:09:43] And many, many other such similarities, you know, maybe sort of surface details that are similar, but I think there are even deeper similarities about sort of the structure of the pieces and the story of the works. You know, the drama of the unfolding.
BMcC [00:10:09] You mean you mean sort of the narrative that takes place in the piece of music itself.
GS [00:10:13] In the piece of music itself. There in a way they're sort of reverse negatives of each other, in that the Beethoven begins with a duple time, kind of a march, you know, in 4/4 time.
GS [00:10:48] And works its way at the end to this lilting triple time Rondeau.
GS [00:11:08] And that's sort of, the release is in the rondo. Brahms does the opposite, starts with the triple time first movement.
GS [00:11:36] Maybe not unlike Eroica Symphony, that starts with a triple time first movement and then works its way to a duple time dance at the end, this wonderful release in what some have called kind of a Hungarian dance.
GS [00:12:02] And maybe this is a tribute to Joachim.
BMcC [00:12:07] That's fantastic. You know, when, again, when you were here in Boston, you had a nice conversation with my colleague, Jared Bowen, and you brought him through some of the elements of the Beethoven concerto that remain consistent across the movements, some of the lines, some of the contours that maybe don't hit a lot of us listeners immediately because we're sort of in the moment just with the music. But you showed him through that, and now you showed me the same kind of thing, but across the two concertos. That's amazing. I actually, I was not sort of making those connections before you just showed me that.
GS [00:12:41] Well, you know, I guess what I say is, what I've been saying is I feel like these two pieces are, they're like siblings. You know, they're born of the same muse, and they share the same DNA. And I don't mean just the notes D and A, but there really is something about those pieces. And in a way, you know, when I talk to composers, they say, you know, a lot of this stuff happens subconsciously. We're not aware of it when it's happening. And in a way, maybe it's just Brahms was so fluent in the language of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And maybe, you know, I guess the analogies in his symphony, Brahms writes--.
[00:13:30] [Plays violin]
[00:13:30] You know, and people say, well, maybe that's an homage to a Beethoven symphony, and so maybe similarly in his violin concerto, maybe Brahms also pays homage to Beethoven's Violin Concerto.
BMcC [00:13:44] Oh, it wouldn't be too surprising if somewhere, whether conscious or unconscious, with Brahms, given what we know about his own vision of Beethoven and that hovering sort of presence in his life, it would make a lot of sense. But now, Gil, you've just touched on something that I wanted to ask anyway. I'll preface it with something you told me several years ago when we talked about your Bach solo Partitas and Sonatas recording, and you revealed to me how much you looked into, and you even had a specific book you recommended about dance forms and Bach's music. But that brings to mind with the Bach you had the, sort of this grounding information and thoughts about dance forms. And now you've brought up Brahms and his own symphonies, the allusions possibly to Beethoven's symphonies. Is there something for you as a player that provided the same sort of grounding reference point for the Brahms concerto that maybe that book about dancing in the Baroque did for Bach? Is there some way of drawing another resource into your mind that helped you to sort of see a way of doing this piece?
GS [00:15:00] When when I speak with young violinists or students, I always say, look, we are so lucky with these masterpieces and to study them, to learn them. It's really I guess the analogy I use is, you know, if you think of a great sculpture, you know, you can look at it from an infinite number of angles and from every angle, you learn. Every angle is rewarding. You know, it's worth the time to do all of it. Just now, when you asked about a book, I can't recommend Styra Avins's book more highly. I loved reading it. She was the first, I believe, to translate all of Brahms's letters. You know, she was the one who took the Brahms letters and translated them from German to to English. And yes, she's really, really wonderful. And I found it very, very inspiring. And she's written much more besides that. But that book. Yes, absolutely. Highly recommended and very much worth it.
BMcC [00:16:08] Wonderful. Wonderful. That's great. I mean, all the ways that we can all sort of find new angles, new perspectives on this music, because these pieces do arrive on the schedule, on concert schedules year after year and for good reason, they are worth returning to. But, you know, having other input, having other ways of not just hearing the music, but hearing what other people have thought about the music is so valuable. And so I appreciate Styra's translations of Brahms letters. That sounds absolutely fascinating. I think there's a lot that could be gained as that music is sort of flowing through your ears.
GS [00:16:50] Oh, amazing. I mean, if you think of his study of counterpoint and if you think of his, which he embarked on with Joachim as friends, you know, and of his study of variations, you know, I think maybe this piece was his kind of-- maybe this is just my mind conjecture, maybe this was some sort of a statement about friendship, you know, this was maybe something to do with friendship in general, which was very important to Brahms, being a lifelong bachelor who never started a family. And maybe his friendship with Joachim in particular, which ended up being a lifelong friendship. You know, if you think of the opening melody, it starts in the lower register, empty, you know, without counterpoint, without harmony. It's just--
[00:17:44] [Plays violin]
[00:17:54] You know, and then it undergoes several different transformations, different settings, first in the canon between the cellos and first violins, a canon that doesn't quite work out, you know, and then when Joachim comes in, he turns into a very stormy, almost unrecognizable kind of, you know, a diabolical violin, Hungarian style, minor mode version. And really only five minutes into the piece, maybe six minutes into the piece, does it really begin with, you know, what feels like, finally we've hit the right setting for this melody with Joachim himself playing the melody and--
[00:18:39] [Plays violin]
[00:18:39] But this time it has a friend, you know, and the friend is in the viola section and it's these running eighth notes.
[00:19:08] [Plays violin]
[00:19:08] And those eighth notes, you know, later, triplets, those accompany the soloist for the rest of the piece. And so it really is, in a way, a tribute to friendship. And, you know, Brian, before I, before we spoke today, I did a little bit of research and, you know, regarding the premiere of the piece. And if you bear with me, I'd love to read you a little story. I'll do my best. This is you know, the premiere was New Year's Day, Leipzig, in 1879, with Joachim playing the solo part. Yeah. Can you imagine for it to be there, what would it have been like? And Brahms himself conducting the orchestra. And this is from, you know, the Library of Congress published the manuscript of the Brahms Violin Concerto in his own handwriting, you know, the autograph. And at the time, Sir Yehudi Menuhin wrote a beautiful essay before the piece. And so here we go. I'll do my best to read it.
[00:20:16] It says, "At the historic premiere by Joachim of Brahms's Violin Concerto on New Year's Day, 1879, Brahms, who was to conduct, appeared at the last minute before his ill humored Leipzig audience, his attire in disarray. The effect of the indecorous informality of his gray street trousers was, in the course of the performance, to be outdone by the unfolding spectacle of those same trousers slipping beyond the point where the most supportive spectators could prolong their suspension of disbelief. Brahms had forgotten to fasten them. The concerto ended before the anticipated sartorial denouement. But the scandalized Leipzigers had been utterly distracted, and there is no record that they were so much impressed by the newly offered composition as by its authors narrow escape from the consequences of his personal neglect." [Laughs] So, sartorial--
BMcC [00:21:27] [Laughing] I had never heard that!
GS [00:21:27] Sartorial denouement.
BMcC [00:21:29] I love that phrase. Sartorial denouement. I had never heard that story.
GS [00:21:33] SMH! [Laughing]
BMcC [00:21:38] [Laughing] I mean, that's the kind of story that you expect to hear about Mozart, right? The sort of gags and funny, weird humor that have, you know, but I had never heard that story. That's fantastic.
GS [00:21:47] What is that called? That's like a wardrobe malfunction? Is that right?
BMcC [00:21:52] Yeah, we'll go with that. That's amazing. But, you know, the point that Menuhin makes is fantastic. Like, the audience just, they didn't even care because the music was so emotionally overpowering. That's fantastic.
GS [00:22:05] But I have to confess then I ran this story by Styra, and she says to be careful, that she doesn't really have any confirmation of it. There's a similar story from a different concert in Frankfurt where Brahms was wearing, I forget if it was his street trousers rather than the formal concert trousers. So, you know, she says, please take it with a grain of salt, but still.
BMcC [00:22:32] OK, well, we'll go with Styra. But maybe he made a habit of it. Who knows? [Laughing] Oh, but that's such a great story, though, anyway.
GS [00:22:43] And, you know, these issues of Brahms and Joachim, they're still very relevant today. If you think of young people, they were two young German Romantics, you know, and they were discussing life. And this was really, you know, this is very, very different from from the period before where things were very religious and the church played such a strong role. And they famously spoke about, you know, what to do about marriage and family. And Brahms said, "I shall not be fettered by such things." And Joachim said, "You will be free, but you will be lonely," you know, "frei aber einsam." And of course, that became kind of a musical model, where F-A-E, you know, the sort of acronym of "frei aber einsam" became notes from which they would write a piece as Brahms himself contributed to the famous F-A-E Sonata.
BMcC [00:23:43] Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's an amazing world to sort of put ourselves in. And you're right that there's relevance to the way people work together today. I mean, these relationships that result in creative sparks but also run into these very fraught times, which I think happened with Brahms and Joachim. They went through a rough patch together.
GS [00:24:06] Yes. I think ironically, ironically, Joachim, who did get married, ended up getting divorced. And and it was Brahms himself who was called as a witness for Joachim's wife.
BMcC [00:24:19] Now, you're right. I had forgotten that part of the story. I remember there was something and they had a falling out. And, yes, it had to do with Brahms siding with the wife in the divorce. Wow. What a fraught relationship. But what a historic relationship. What a relationship that brought this work to us, you know? You mentioned as you talked through the idea of friendship embedded in this piece of music, I couldn't help but think about the second movement as well, and that oboe solo and the violin's response to it, and then the weaving together of those voices. It's just so magical. It's so unbelievably almost heartbreaking. It's so beautiful.
GS [00:24:55] It's really a miracle.
GS [00:25:28] Sarasate famously said, you know, the oboe gets the best melody in the piece, and I just wonder, but there is some parallel to the Beethoven's 2nd movement as well, where the sort of main melody of those variations in the Beethoven is presented by the orchestra. The violin really never plays it. Only at the very end the violinist plays it kind of in syncopation to the pizzicato of the string section.
GS [00:26:34] The violin sort of spends the second movement meditating and somehow solidifying the thoughts about the musical material of the first movement.
BMcC [00:26:59] That's a great way to put it. I love that. Gil, when you were here, we, part of our exchange, as you played the Beethoven with the chamber ensemble from The Knights, I was so, just so captivated by the cadenzas that you play in that piece. And we talked about those being from Kreisler.
BMcC [00:27:38] And as I said, this recording felt to me like the opening of a present, not only in its sort of overall feel and energy, but certainly these cadenzas, which I myself was not so familiar with the Kreisler. I think that Heifitz recording that I learned this piece with is the Auer, the Leopold Auer cadenzas, right? And once again in the Brahms, you lay on a cadenza that I wasn't familiar with. Is that also a Kreisler cadenza, or...?
GS [00:28:04] So in the Brahms I played the Joachim cadenza. There is, in fact, a beautiful cadenza by Kreisler. But somehow I always feel. Like I should play the Joachim cadenza. I feel like maybe, that's his piece.
GS [00:28:50] You know, I love his cadenzas, you know, for Mozart Concertos and Beethoven Concerto as well. And this one, you know, may be my favorite of all the Joachim.
BMcC [00:29:26] On a broader scale, I mean, certainly with these two pieces, but other pieces in the repertoire that you do, when you're playing these concertos that do come up on your schedule, you know, over the years, many times, how often do you change things up and try something different or just at least look at other ideas?
GS [00:29:45] Probably not often enough. But with The Knights, we did, we were lucky to have time and to try a little bit of experimentation with the Beethoven. You know, another thing with the Beethoven concerto is that he wrote it very quickly. And, you know, people say that the ink was still drying on the pages, the musicians, the morning of the rehearsal. And if you look at the finale, he doesn't actually write the Rondo theme every time it comes back. You know, he, in fact, leaves eight blank pages, you know, every time. And he writes, you know, "da capo al tema," go back to the main theme. And, you know, when you think about Rondos from that time and Beethoven's rondos and if you compare from other works of of that time, you know, the triple concerto or the sonatas, you know, the final movement, he would often take the reprise, you know, the what do you call, the refrain of the Rondo, and he would put variations in it. You know, the second time around, the third time, put it in a different setting. So we did try to do a little bit of that on this recording and we did do a little bit of, I wouldn't say cadenzas, but maybe "eingegangen," you know, little linking phrases that were, as you say, maybe a little bit based on Beethoven's own cadenza that he wrote for the piano version.
BMcC [00:31:27] OK, OK.
GS [00:31:28] And we tried to involve, you know, timpanists and others.
BMcC [00:31:32] Well, Gil, I could just talk to you about this stuff all day long, but I think we'll leave it there, for this time around anyway. And I so appreciate your taking the time, in London where you are right now, to just talk again about this music. It's just always so good to talk with you.
GS [00:31:48] And you, too. So great to be with you. Thank you.