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Review: Gil Shaham Performs Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas at Disney Hall

Laurie Niles

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Published: March 31, 2015 at 6:22 AM [UTC]

Watching Gil Shaham perform Bach's six solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin in Disney Hall in Los Angeles on Sunday night felt like witnessing a new chapter in violin history. Aside from displaying the astonishing athleticism and mental stamina required to perform all 32 movements live and by memory, Shaham also turned these familiar works on their head. Most violinists make concessions in Bach, based on the constraints of technique, but Shaham has reached a level of mastery with these pieces that allowed for a great deal of experimentation. On Sunday (as in his new recording), he went for a wholesale re-thinking of speed, from the setting of basic tempos to the fitting of embellishments into impossibly tiny spaces of time.

Gil ShahamShaham's performance was accompanied visually with original film scenes by New York-based filmmaker David Michalek, whose subjects -- dancers, still-life arrangements, the flapping of bird wings, a face, kids playing the violin -- were captured in a state of high-def super-slow motion, revealing every intimate detail of their expressions and motions. Fascinating spectacles, sometimes these visual elements aligned with the music, and other times they seemed to compete. Shaham's high-velocity playing, tremendous energy and big-hearted expression drew most of my attention throughout the concert.

Like taking a spin with a race car driver, following Shaham was in turns exhilarating and disorienting. The new set of tempi turned many of the movements into very different-feeling music from what has evolved as "tradition" in the last century. Of course, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas were not neatly handed down to today's violinists, from one generation of performers to the next. They were left largely forgotten and unplayed for more than a century: completed in 1720, they weren't printed until 1802, and even then, they weren't widely championed until Joseph Joachim took them on in the late 19th century. In other words, the tempos that we take for granted today were set by performers far removed from Bach and his time. Certainly that has been changing with the advent of period performance; at the same time, it's made us all a little overly obsessed with what is "right."

When Shaham spoke to about his exploration of these works, he mentioned the disparity between the tempos typically used by violinists for the solo sonatas and partitas and Bach's other Minuets, Sarabandes, Fugues and the Chaconne from Cantata 150, which are typically played faster. He wondered, why not play them at those tempos? One reason has to do with Bach's impossible demands. How do you play on four strings at a time on the violin? How do you perform a three-voice fugue on a violin? How do you play a melody over a thrumming bassline, on a melodic instrument? For some time, people thought these works were academic exercises, something theoretical, not really meant for human beings to play as written.

We've come a long way; but make no mistake, this music is as hard to play as it ever was. How did our hero Joachim fare, those many years ago? Here is Bernard Shaw's account from 1890:

"(Joachim) played Bach's Sonata in C at the Bach Choir Concert at St James’s Hall on Tuesday. The second movement of that work is a fugue some three or four hundred bars long. Of course you cannot really play a fugue in three continuous parts on the violin; but by dint of doublestopping and dodging from one part to another, you can evoke a hideous ghost of a fugue that will pass current if guaranteed by Bach and Joachim. That was what happened on Tuesday. Joachim scraped away frantically, making a sound after which an attempt to grate a nutmeg."

The fugue to which Shaw refers above is one of the longest and complex fugues that Bach ever wrote, and it appears in the third solo Sonata. On Sunday, Shaham nailed that fugue like I've never heard it in live performance, with clarity in every voice and precision of pitch and placement. The fast tempo served to align the voices; it solved the problem of rolling chords and jumping strings by putting them closer together in time. This was also an instance where the filmmaker's vision aligned well with the music: a mesmerizing spray of water droplets slowed nearly to a stop. The audience, which had finally stopped clapping between movements, couldn't resist clapping after this extraordinarily well-executed fugue. The preceding "Adagio" had ended with spellbinding intimacy, a mood that Shaham captured more than once on this long journey.

Indeed this set of works, three dance suites and three sonatas, constitutes a far-ranging musical journey when played as a whole. As Shaham said from stage, "this is the closest thing violinists have to a holy book."

Arguably the most sacred scripture in our "holy book" is the "Chaconne" from the D minor Partita. Twentieth-century performances of the work tend to proceed like a dirge; Shaham played it like a dance. Instead of moving with majesty, as is the tradition, it moved with a different center of gravity: arpeggios became shimmering chords, new through-lines became perceptible, gestures changed. It was extremely artful, and it brought new light to this important piece.

Shaham also experimented with decoration -- when a movement was repeated, he embellished it the second time (following Baroque tradition). The second sonata's "Andante" has what sounds like a heartbeat that continues through the movement, underneath a melody. Somehow Shaham managed to decorate this melody, even displacing the melody's rhythms while still keeping that underlying heartbeat completely steady. The final Partita also provided plenty of repeats, which he embellished in a joyful, playful way, sneaking in little flurries of notes, quicker than a tickle.

When it comes to Bach, people don't necessarily want to change their ways or augment their tastes. Certainly, people don't have to embrace Bach anew, but Gil Shaham's live Bach cycle was a revelation and a joy to witness.

Laurie and Gil Shaham

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From Adalberto Valle-Rivera
Posted on March 31, 2015 at 2:34 PM
Looking forward to listen to him live soon later in the year. Thanks for sharing what for me would be a preview of beautiful performances to come.

Thoroughly disgusted with ultra-conservatism in music-either too strict or too pro-older masters. There's no one right way to play these masterpieces, though there may be some less desirable options. The point of recording or performing Bach live is not to "outdo" the older masters or to play them "the right way" according to strict performance practice rules, but to convey his musical ideas and message in a convincing way. It's about the music, not who's the best/worse/more "accurate"/etc. I actually love many types of Bach performances, old to new, and realize each has something beautiful and/or musically interesting to offer-no way I am disgusted when someone doesn't play it like Milstein used to, or isn't entirely "historically accurate."

Haven't bought Mr. Shaham's recording yet, considering to hear him live first, but perhaps that's a bad idea, since I have to wait a few more months for my turn to come in NYC.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 31, 2015 at 2:57 PM
The Chaconne is such a stodgy old thing, it really does need a facelift. What we really need is a thermonuclear cadenza inserted before the last bar, something written "In the Style of Pugnani" with slippery glissandi in tenths, left-hand pizzicati, and whistling false harmonics. Hard to believe ol' Bach forgot to include that stuff, what with people saying he was so brilliant and all.

But now to be serious, I'm all for a violinist trying to re-invent the great masterworks, especially in live performance, as long as it falls within earshot of the boundaries of taste. Nigel Kennedy has proved it doesn't ruin your career.

Swinging the pendulum back to cynicism, I do have to wonder how much of the tempo acceleration is driven by an ulterior motivation to get through all six pieces in a reasonable amount of time.

Posted on March 31, 2015 at 5:58 PM
Thank you for this excellent review. I saw this concert in Bethesda a couple of months ago, and you captured the performance perfectly. Shaham exhibited a very gracious, and even humble, presence that highlighted the music--what I mean is, his virtuosity drew attention to the music more than to himself, if that makes sense, so that we all got to share it as listeners.
Posted on April 2, 2015 at 4:37 AM
Too bad there weren't some excerpts from these in the very fine interview.

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